In these unprecedented times of global shutdown, the shipping industry has been forced to move rapidly into the digital age. Vessels still require their statutory surveys and the clock does not stop just because the surveyors are unable to fly out to a vessel. This has forced flag states and Recognised Organisations (ROs) to develop their own procedures for remote surveys/inspections.

Remote surveys/inspections were already in use before COVID-19 – Lloyd’s Register performed one in five of its surveys without attending the ship – but their use has increased considerably. In March 2020 the number of complex remote surveys performed by Lloyd’s Register increased by 25 per cent. As resources continue to remain limited, remote surveys/inspections will be an increasingly utilised tool from the suite of options available to flag states and ROs.

The benefits of remote surveys/inspections are many. One such benefit could be an overall reduction in workload for the crew. Using an electronic database to which all the ship’s certificates have been uploaded means ROs and flag states can access this without the ship’s crew having to find all the certificates for each different survey/inspection: a repetitive job that can take considerable time. Although the crew would be required to go around and take videos/photos, or indeed live-stream to the surveyor, it is likely this job would be performed by the Chief Officer and/or Chief Engineer depending on the survey. When a surveyor joins the ship to perform a physical survey/inspection it can often result in participation from multiple crew members, as usually someone is required to be with them throughout the whole survey/inspection. Furthermore it reduces time spent in port when inspections/surveys are being performed, reduces the need for ships to deviate in order to attend surveys and also encourages transparency and clear communications between the vessel and shore-side management. It also reduces costs incurred by shipping companies, which should expect a reduced fee as surveyors no longer incur the additional costs of travel and expenses.

Maintaining confidence in the credibility of remote surveys is where the challenge really lies. For many surveyors, the survey/inspection starts before they have even stepped foot on the vessel. Walking along the dock and looking at the hull, the state of the gangway, the demeanour of the crew and countless other factors can give the surveyor a ‘feel’ for the ship before the true survey begins. Even crew on the best-run ships can feel nervous before and during a survey/inspection; it is not uncommon to hear comments such as “Don’t tell him about the VHF that isn’t working” or “Make sure she doesn’t see that rust patch” in the lead-up to a survey/inspection! With remote surveys you do not even have to try and hide these things: the crew are in complete control of what the surveyor can see. This possibility of problems being missed is sure to be the key argument from those who are against the shift to remote surveys.

A further difficultly arises regarding ownership of the photos and videos taken by the crew in the process of performing the survey. If these are taken on personal devices, can the crew member be compelled to share these with the external organisation performing the survey? Using an app installed on a company-provided mobile phone or tablet, or just the device’s camera and email, and not personal devices, could be the best way to avoid this conundrum. Many companies already provide these to their vessels, often for the bridge and the Master. To ensure the correct procedure is followed, this would require updates to companies’ safety management systems, which would need to be developed in accordance with any guidelines provided by the flag state.

Having a surveyor physically attend on the ship when conducting an out-of-water survey once every five years could be seen as the ultimate goal. This, of course, would require considerable risk assessments being undertaken to determine for which vessels this would work and which would require a more ‘boots on the ground’ approach to surveys. The Paris MoU system for inspections involves the creation of a ‘White, Grey and Black list’, which indicates how often ships are inspected when in port. A system similar to this is likely to be one of the best ways of determining the safety of only physically surveying the vessel on a minimal basis.

Although remote surveys were already in use, their wider use which is now being experienced requires a more standardised approach across the industry. All stakeholders in the industry need to be confident that remote surveys are not simply a ‘soft’ approach and that their credibility is guaranteed. This standardised approach will ultimately need to come from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to ensure the same standard is met across the board, built around a strong legal framework. IMO legislation currently contains very strict guidelines on how surveys should be performed; any update regarding remote surveys will need collaboration between flag states and ROs along with other industry stakeholders.

Using a combination of remote and physical surveys is likely to be the way forward in the future. Certain aspects of inspections, such as observing crew drills, require the physical presence of a surveyor on board the vessel. Inspections of small dents or minor issues are often already done remotely and there is certainly scope to expand the use of remote surveys, but we must be mindful of their limitations when developing the guidance to be used in the future. The shipping industry is often seen as adverse to change and reluctant to move into the future. However, COVID-19 has shown what can be done with the technology we already have available to us and it is key that the momentum is not lost.