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Remote annual surveys – offering a digital alternative

Having delivered remote surveys since 2018, DNV GL is now seeing an increase in demand for applying this flexible approach to the annual ship survey.

When the annual survey for Berge Bulk’s Large Capesize (LCS) bulker Berge Zugspitze came due in the spring of 2020, travel restrictions brought about by the coronavirus pandemic prohibited conducting a traditional on-board survey. Berge Bulk reached out to DNV GL and the Isle of Man Ship Registry, inquiring about the possibility of conducting the main class and statutory annual surveys remotely. Only weeks later, DNV GL presented the annual survey report and endorsed e-certificates to Berge Bulk.

“Offering more flexibility through remote surveys is one of DNV GL – Maritime’s highest priorities,” CEO Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen states. “As a company, DNV GL has been on a digital journey for the past five years. This has allowed us to continually strengthen our service offering as customer needs evolve.”

Even in normal times, the annual survey can be challenging to arrange using traditional methods due to the location of the vessel, the charter and other factors. “In this case, Covid-19 restrictions posed additional difficulty for Berge Bulk, so they sought a remote annual survey,” says Marianne Valderhaug, Director Technical Support at DNV GL – Maritime. “DNV GL and the Isle of Man Ship Registry both have long working relationships with the client, and both know the vessel well. Based on DNV GL’s experience with remote surveying, a date for this remote annual survey was agreed.”

Flags embracing the remote option

DNV GL has seen the number of remote surveys rise by 33 per cent during the Covid-19 crisis, an experience largely shared by their flag partners. “Covid-19 has increased the number of inquiries for remote audits, inspections and surveys,” says Toby Brooks, Deputy Director of the Isle of Man Ship Registry. “The crunch on travel and gathering has definitely accelerated the move to remote surveying."

Brooks reports that the Isle of Man has been looking to expand their use of the technology for some time. “But informal inspections are very different from official surveys. This was an opportunity to apply the technology at the formal level.” The fact that class would be represented by DNV GL was reassuring, he adds. “We have followed their digital journey for several years now. We are also very familiar with Berge Bulk, both the fleet and the organization, and this particular vessel.”

Flag states typically delegate the carrying out of annual surveys to class societies, but because this was a new situation, the Isle of Man wanted to take part as a remote observer. “Having the flag representative watching was unusual, but all parties handled the situation smoothly. Everyone accepted that we were there to learn and understand more about remote surveying,” Brooks confirms.

Four cameras in different locations on the ship provided good visual coverage. “From our side, it was fairly easy to see the full scope of the survey playing out on screen,” says Brooks. “DNV GL could switch pictures to suit anyone witnessing the process. We could see all four views simultaneously or individually. The survey of the engine room had to be recorded and replayed, but the picture quality was really quite good there as well.”

Preparation and cooperation the keys to success

Brooks believes efficient organization of the overall operation was the key to success: “Without the high level of planning from DNV GL, we would have needed considerably more time. Cooperation between the ship’s crew and DNV GL was also very good, and the chief engineer and master on board handled the process very well.”

He points out that communication with the crew is an important part of any survey. “We had to make sure that on-board staff were interacting satisfactorily with the surveyor, and DNV GL gave them very clear instructions. Here I believe communication is the key, both in the planning stages and during execution.”

The young age and good condition of the vessel were also factors in enabling a remote survey, Brooks says. “If the ship is older, the survey scope and demands increase. You would need to see inside tanks, using drones to measure thickness, inspect corrosion, and so on.” That said, he believes that more experience and technological advances will eventually enable remote annual surveys on older vessels.

For now, Brooks is content to take what he calls “baby steps”. “We will accept remote surveys case by case,” he states. “This situation basically forced itself upon us, but DNV GL was ready to handle it. We do not see remote surveys as a replacement for all on-board surveys, but now we know that we have this option when we need it. It’s always good to have a good Plan B.”

Technical requirements for remote surveying

Remote annual surveys require a minimum of 3G internet or good Wi-Fi connection for live streaming. The team planned to conduct the survey while the ship was at anchor in Port Hedland, Australia, where internet capabilities were sufficient to support live streaming from the ship. Then there was the challenge of preparing the on-board crew. “A lot of preparation was involved between DNV GL and the owner and crew of the vessel,” reports Sanjiv Mishra, Head of Section, Technical Helpdesk Asia, DNV GL – Maritime.

DNV GL provided procedures and briefed the crew on the particulars of on-board surveying. With the ship manager, owner, flag and on-board crew participating, the survey commenced on 21 May 2020. “We encountered some hurdles along the way, but thanks to very good support from both the crew and the owner, the survey was completed in four working days,” Mishra confirms.

Climbing the remote survey learning curve

Insufficient internet connection from certain parts of the ship provided the team with considerable challenges, though not insurmountable. “We experienced poor connection with the lower engine room decks,” Mishra confirms. Using hands-on ingenuity and leveraging their collective experience, the team found a solution: “In some cases we used a portable router to provide access, lowering it down into an engine room skylight to allow live streaming from where the survey was being conducted.” In the most challenging areas, the chief engineer recorded the survey according to pre-agreed instructions and later played it back for the surveyor.

“This survey took more time than an on-board survey would have, but the time should be reduced with more experience,” says Mishra. Using the Onsight Connect video collaboration app and MS Teams for administrative interaction and sharing screens proved to be a successful combination, he adds. “Importantly, we were able to document not only all the challenges, but the lessons learned.” He notes that Berge Zugspitze was a good candidate vessel, and Berge Bulk an overall good fit for the operation. “They have a young fleet that is particularly suitable for remote annual surveys, and they were very keen to cooperate.”

A satisfied first-time customer

For dry bulk owner Berge Bulk, conducting an annual survey for Berge Zugspitze remotely was new territory. “This was the first remote annual survey from our side, but we are working actively to adapt remote technology, especially through preparing our on-board crews,” says vessel manager Jude Rex of Berge Bulk. “Some of the scope, such as radio surveys and the annual lifeboat service, still requires approved service suppliers to be in attendance, but the bigger point for us was that we could complete the survey, even in the challenging situation posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Being able to complete annual surveys when we need them is critical, and we are happy to have this option.”

In order to deal with the problems of on-board internet connectivity, Berge Bulk now plans to install capability to enable live streaming from the lower engine room decks. “With better connectivity the entire survey process would have taken less time,” Rex says. “The expanded capability will be for our own use as well, in addition to the work with class and flag. Building live-streaming capacity will enhance the quality of our internal reporting.”

Accommodating the human factor

Jude Rex is thoroughly mindful of the importance of the human element in this kind of process. “Casual discussions between the crew and surveyor during an on-board survey can provide additional insight and shared learning, but we may be able to accommodate this element into remote surveys as all parties gain more experience.”

For others venturing into the world of remote surveys, Rex has some practical advice: “Patience is a good quality to have in the on-board staff as well as in the remote surveyors,” he notes. “The crew had done remote inspection work previously. This gave them confidence to tackle unforeseen challenges, but the thorough briefing from DNV GL was indispensable.”

Overall, he terms the survey a successful proof of concept. “With evolving technology and better on-board connectivity, remote annual surveys should become part of the new norm.”

Realizing the vision of a digital future

“We started with e-certificates in 2015 and did our first remote surveys in 2018,” says Valderhaug. “We already had what we needed from our side to meet the growing demand for remote surveys, and we had the experience to be able to plan and execute this annual survey remotely.”

Sanjiv Mishra agrees: “We have been doing smaller remote surveys for years. This did not start with the coronavirus. We have delivered remote surveys from all our DATE  hubs, meaning that we can offer global coverage for remote surveys in all time zones, with more than 50 qualified remote surveyors in DNV GL.”

Marianne Valderhaug sums up: “In this case, the coronavirus pandemic gave remote surveying a push, and we were in a good position to respond. On-board annual surveys are preferable, but our experience over the last years allows us to offer a high-quality alternative when our customers need it.”

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Marianne Strand Valderhaug

Marianne Strand Valderhaug

Director Technical Support

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