Hundreds of machines bite the ground in the UAE's most challenging project to date.
Think of the Panama Canal. Built over a whole decade it was one of the largest civil engineering projects known to man. Massive in length, the 33-metre wide trench came at a high cost in dollars, and due to a malaria outbreak, in lives too.
Around 268,000,000 cubic yards were scooped out during the original excavations.
Now, imagine a project closer to home that is set to scoop out an amazing four times the amount of debris. The Arabian Canal is set to run through more than 75 kilometers of desert and proclaims itself to be the biggest project of its type so far, anywhere.
The canal will be fully navigable, though there won't be any commercial use for it. Instead it will bring ‘waterfront living' to around one and a half million people as the emirate runs out of plots alongside the real coast and creek.
Obviously, a canal of this scale is not going to be cheap, nor is it going to happen overnight. The project is valued at about US $6 billion - a staggering amount by anybody's reckoning.
Over the next fifteen years, the earthworks are planned over ten phases, though at no point will all ten be running concurrently. Back in September 2007, the contract for the first phase was awarded to Tristar Contracting, who began work in October.
Arriving on the site, you have to marvel at the vastness of the desert. Sand dunes with tufts of willowy grass stretch as far as the eye can see. In fact one of the first tasks the developer had to contend with was to move as much of the wildlife as possible to a nearby reserve.
We are not quite sure how you go about catching Oryx, for example, but apparently it all happened at night time. Still, a flock of camels are herded by a Bedouin man around the perimeter, reminding us of just where we are.
It doesn't take a genius to realise that a fairly serious amount of earthmovers are to be needed to shift the volume of sand per day to keep on schedule.
Excavation work on the canal continues at a rate of 100,000 cubic metres per day, with more than 300 pieces of equipment on site. This first phase of work will involve digging 200 million cubic metres of earth: so far around 9 million cubic metres have been moved.
But how? Driving around the site with Ian Raine, project director, we comprehend just how hard the equipment (and operators) have to work to meet target.Bumping along the roughly graded track, we have to dodge fully loaded tipper trucks coming the other way at the rate of about five per minute.
Interestingly, the spoil is destined for landscaping the waterside city, with vast peaks and ridges all part of the masterplan, including valleys and hills up to 200 metres high.
These will stretch for 9km, following the route of the waterway, though the sheer amount of loose material involved must surely create some logistical problems for the contractor.
Next, we travel though a tunnel beneath the new Dubai bypass, and as the road rises out of the other side, we are greeted with an awe-inspiring sight.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds of bulldozers crawl all over the bottom of an enormous pit. With them is a phalanx of wheel-loader as well as a supporting cast of heavy trucks, fuel tankers and various small equipment. Let's take a look at the operation in closer detail;
The ground is ripped with one of the many bulldozers. Official data shows that there are currently 91 such machines involved in this project, and all of them as far as we could tell, used a single-shank ripper. Most of them carry U-type blades with curved edges for moving spoil.
The vast majority were Cat D8 and D9s. The D8 is one of the region's most popular ‘dozers, because the operating weight means that it can be transported without the need for dismantling.
Interestingly, the D8 line dates back as far as 1935, with the RD8 becoming the D8 in 1937 and thus starting Cat's famous numbering system which still continues today. As far as we could tell, there were no machines here more than a year or two old - and the majority look brand new. Since 2004, the D8T has been produced with the ACERT engine, replacing the D8R which had been produced in two series since 1996.
Complementing the D8s were a score of D9s. These great machines have an operating weight of 47 tonnes and an blade with about 21.4 cubic yards, however, they were dwarfed by the largest newcomer to the site - the Komatsu D475a.
Those with an interest in bulldozers will tell you that the D475a Super Dozer is the pretty much the largest on the market, with only it's bigger brother, the D575a being heavier.
With an operating weight of 103 tonnes, the D475a is generally to be found in quarries or opencast mines, which in a way the canal is. At a certain level, the ground consists of limestone, and even the biggest ‘dozers struggle to rip through it. We watch as a Komatsu, with it's shank right down, revs and jostles back and forward until the subsurface rock breaks.
At the edge of the site, a new d475a is being assembled. Clearly a machine weighing more than 100 tonnes doesn't arrive fully assembled, and this one was waiting for the blade to be attached.
Large projects like this generally have a delivery schedule, with machines often ordered years in advance so they arrive when needed throughout the duration of the build. Loader
After the ground has been ripped and the spoil ‘dozed into piles, it is then cleaned up by one the many wheel loaders working on site. There are several types and sizes here, but we were struck by the speed and efficiency of one operator in a Komatsu W470-6.
Each truck being loaded needed seven passes, requiring the machine to load, reverse, pivot, turn, raise bucket and dump load. Although this was a tricky operation to do fast and well, the driver made the it look like one fluid motion.
One thing you might not expect when digging in a desert is problems with water flooding the site. It is in way inevitable, but the sight of water gushing out of hot sand is very strange indeed. To this end, the contractors have brought in some de-watering plant.
A giant trencher, or continuous excavator hollows a narrow ditch that is designed to fill with the sub-surface water, which is then pumped dry by a string of diesel-powered dewatering pumps. Once the water is removed, the other machines can rip down to the level of the trench over the rest of the site area, so the process can begin again.
Ian Raine observed that some of the biggest challenges are the logistics involved in running such a number of machines on the same site.
This is hardly surprising, as the scores of different machines have to sychronise, like some kind of savage metal ballet in order to achieve the sort of efficiency required to stay on target.
To this end, the machines have their data and movements logged on computer, which also provides the site manager with periodic progress reports.
One of the reasons why the canal has to be so deep is so that large cruisers can navigate the waterway. The Arabian Canal will have two sets of locks, one at either side of the canal, which will be different from traditional locks as they will act as tidal control gates, rather than raising or lowering the water levels. It is essential for the water to flow to stop it stagnating.
Equally importantly, the sides must be satisfactorily engineered to prevent collapses or seasonal flooding. Speaking in the year, Robert Hudson, regional director for Mouchel, a UK-based engineering consultancy group that is working on projects in the area, said the Arabian Canal was a remarkable feat of engineering.
"One of the main challenges will be to do with the ground conditions and depend on what they find when they dig. It's going to have huge cliffs. There are not many 70m cuttings in this sort of material." All the same, there will be machines on this site for a long time to come.