Shipping ports go high-tech

At the Port of Rotterdam, robotic stevedores will help cut costs and boost safety. Roll over the diagram to see how they'll work.

FORTUNE -- As shipping gets supersized, shore-side operations are also getting an upgrade. The Port of Rotterdam, Europe's largest, is undergoing a massive expansion. It's in the middle of constructing an all-new port, dubbed Maasvlakte II, which will be the size of roughly 3,737 football fields when completed. The first ships will start unloading there in 2014.

Maasvlakte II will be home to the world's most sophisticated loading and unloading operations. APM Terminals, a subsidiary of shipping giant Maersk, is building the first-ever remote-operated seaside crane, where an operator in a nearby office will unload the ship using a joystick and video screens. It will also incorporate driverless vehicles that can drop off cargo by themselves without waiting for a crane, another first, and will completely shut off whole sections of the terminal to regular human-driven vehicles. Once completed, it will be the most heavily automated ever built. The planned result? Fewer accidents, lower costs, and a 50% increase in operating efficiency.

The terminal's managing director, Frank Tazelaar, says the APMT's operation will be able to handle 2.7 billion twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) per year when it opens, and will eventually process 4.5 million per year TEU once it gets going. The entire Port of Rotterdam moved about 12 million TEU last year.

The new terminals are a big step forward (especially when compared to the antiquated U.S. port infrastructure), but even more automation is on the horizon. In coming years, expect better cranes, conveyor belts, and even fewer human operators.

For more on the future of shipping, click on the links below
What it costs
A booming network
A bigger, better box
Ports go high-tech

This story is from the May 21, 2012 issue of Fortune.

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