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Flag and class: Forging a new digital partnership

DNV GL’s quest to modernize class continues to gain momentum, and more key stakeholders are getting on board. Now the focus is trained on simplifying and streamlining interactions between flag and class. DNV GL met with the management team of the Marshall Islands Registry in London to discuss the potential benefits of digital class for flag states.

“The first role of the flag is to be responsible for ships operating in a safe, secure and environmentally friendly manner,” states John Ramage, Chief Operating Officer of International Registries, Inc. and its affiliates (IRI), which provide administrative and technical support to the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) Maritime and Corporate Registries.

“We have over 400 employees in 28 offices around the world who provide local service. The registry is growing, which means we have to look at how we can maintain good client relations, and digital services will be a big part of solutions for the future.”

Flag and class better together

The RMI Registry’s role includes helping to develop regulations together with the other IMO member states, and ensuring that ships in their registry are following regulations, says Ramage. “There are several ways in which we do this. We visit all the ships in our fleet at least once a year and delegate statutory tasks to DNV GL and other class societies. Class oversight is important in helping us do our job.”

While the Marshall Islands Registry liaises with all 12 IACS members, DNV GL classes roughly 25 per cent of their fleet. “Class is seen as a key resource on technical issues, but the flag also has technical and operational expertise,” says Simon Bonnett, IRI’s Senior Vice President, Technical. “Part of our responsibility is to have expertise on each vessel in our fleet. We are also responsible for rules governing seafarers’ qualifications, among other things for determining the minimum safe manning.”

Recognized Organizations (ROs) are a great resource for technical expertise, says Bonnett. “But the flag must also have enough technical capabilities to be able to understand what class is talking about. We have cultivated a great relationship with DNV GL, and we feel we can carry on a meaningful dialogue towards our shared goal of using digital technology to streamline class and flag processes.”

The registry is growing, which means we have to look at how we can maintain good client relations, and digital services will be a big part of solutions for the future.
John Ramage - COO International Registers
John Ramage Chief Operating Officer of International Registries

Digital support of the human element

Aidan O’Donnell, IRI’s Senior Vice President, Information Technology, sees the digital shift benefitting both seafarers and their employers: “We set the regulations that the vessel must meet for certification under the Marshall Islands flag. But we also support seafarers in a more complex world. They have a huge amount of paperwork to deal with every day, and increased automation simplifies many of the processes. This gives them more time to attend to more important tasks. A seafarer is worth more when their eyes are on the water than when they are filling out forms.”

O’Donnell notes that the RMI Registry already issues all vessel certificates electronically. “We joined a DNV GL pilot some years ago, and we also had a parallel programme for electronic vessel documents and certificates. We started with electronic signatures and moved from there to electronic vessel certification. It became very popular right away.” In addition, he notes that the electronic application system for seafarers was the RMI Registry’s first electronic documentation initiative.

With responsibility for the digitalization of flag services for the RMI, O’Donnell sees additional benefits of the digital shift: “It gives us increased ability to use the data that operators are generating to improve the quality of our service to them. Access to data allows new ways of working, also together with class. But whether we are talking about machine learning, predictive maintenance or other emerging technologies, the role of the flag is to make sure that quality is maintained.”

Digital class not yet universal

John Ramage notes that a few remaining Port State Control offices have been reluctant to accept e-certificates. “IMO would have to mandate their use in order for all stakeholders to comply, but some states simply lack digital infrastructure in all their ports. Until this is resolved, ships will be dependent on paper in these ports.”

Another factor hindering the universal implementation of electronic certificates, he says, is corruption. “It is basically institutionalized in some places, and the transparency of electronic certificates threatens that way of doing business. With electronic certificates, there is nowhere to hide illegal activities, so certain individuals are reluctant to take them into use. Eventually the Maritime Anti-Corruption Network will make all transactions transparent, but there are other challenges as well. We will need to align our formats across the board and ensure the integrity of both data and transactions.”

Seen from an objective perspective, the benefits of the digital shift are many. “But our clients also see some challenges,” Ramage notes. “There are many offerings on the market, but they need a clear plan for what they want to get out of the move to digital services and operations. The main objective should be to reduce the workload and save money, while ensuring safety and integrity.”

Attendance vs remote surveys

Dave Wamsley is the RMI’s principle contact for DNV GL, working out of IRI’s New York office. “Certain codes can be satisfied without attendance,” he says. “We are already doing this with remote surveys. DNV GL started with a pilot programme, which is now a full ongoing programme, and the RMI has authorized them to carry out remote surveys for selected owners and vessels.” Examples include changes in freeboard for vessels with multiple load lines, or rectification of a minor CA such as the replacement of a damaged fire hose. “Remote surveys have also been authorized for certain statutory surveys, but we have only scratched the surface. Remote and digital services are progressing at a quick pace, and this is also being driven by communication capabilities,” he observes.

“We foresee this really taking off, covering nearly everything. Major damage and annual surveys will still be manual, but virtually everything else can be done remotely, and it will extend further as the industry gains experience,” Wamsley believes. “We need to ensure that internal controls are in place. When we are confident of this, it becomes easier to take the next steps. I don’t foresee an excessive amount of work being necessary to move it along.”

Driving towards digital class

Simon Bonnett notes the various drivers of the digital shift: “Shipping has traditionally been a conservative industry, but safety and the environment are major drivers now. Cost is also a big issue. The digital shift will largely be driven by owners who want to keep costs down, and remote surveys can contribute to this.” He adds that IMO also recognizes that more work needs to be done electronically.

“But through it all, trust must be maintained. We have built a strong relationship with stakeholders over time, and the progression towards more remote services must remain open, transparent and discussion-based.”

The power of shared data

Dave Wamsley points out the potential benefits of sharing data on a platform such as DNV GL’s Veracity. “We work with many ROs, but Veracity has been very impressive. Sharing the data that can be shared between flag and class will improve the efficiency of oversight functions. We wouldn’t have to go back and request information like we do today. We could see vessel status and retrieve reports. All the everyday information we require would be accessible. It’s about more than compliance,” he says. “We want to share quality across the board, and I believe the industry is heading in that direction.”

“When it comes to the digital shift, certain items have more urgency than others,” Wamsley points out. “I think electronic logbooks are next in line. The present system demands huge time and effort from the officers, and it can have expensive repercussions if it is done wrong.” MARPOL routines will have to be revised in order to allow electronic record-keeping, he notes. “Here too regulations will dictate the pace, but technology is pressing regulatory bodies to move forward. In my opinion, more has happened in this field in the last five years than in the last 25. Shipping cannot be called a conservative industry any longer.”

The long view on the digital shift

“The whole ship is becoming computerized, but technology has to be able to be controlled and understood by humans,” John Ramage maintains. “In this respect, proper training is a concern. Autonomous shipping also presents concerns. The equipment has to be of a better specification to be able to perform without human intervention.”

In general, Ramage agrees with those who claim that autonomous does not necessarily mean unmanned. “We can issue a dispensation for certain exceptions, but a ship has to have properly trained crew. At least in the foreseeable future, digitalization is merely an enabler. The human element is often given as a reason for an accident or problem, but we must not forget that the human element also prevents accidents as a matter of routine. Humans are basically doing a good job of running ships.” The challenges with expanded application of technology are the unintended consequences, he concludes. “At the end of the day, humans have to understand what the machines are doing.”

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Eivind Mykland

Eivind Mykland

Head of Section - Statutory Technical Support

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