IUMI 2020: Covid-19 causes offshore survey difficulties; is remote the answer?

Two of the speakers at the Offshore Energy Workshop for this year’s online Offshore Energy Workshop, moderated by James McDonald, head of energy at Sompo International in London and chair of the IUMI offshore energy committee, have said that remote surveys of offshore energy installations (marine warranty surveys or MWS) had increased as a proportion of surveys undertaken as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, Henrik Uth, managing director of the Survey Association, and Alex Harrison, group director of energy services for LOC in Perth, Australia, took slightly different tacks when approaching the potential and the risks of surveys conducted remotely.

For Uth, the main question in his presentation was “how do we obtain information from offshore assets when a surveyor cannot travel to a location?” while for Harrison the main question was “what remote processes will be ‘locked in’ as a legacy of Covid-19, and what ones will be discarded?”

Uth said that in too many cases a survey was not carried out at all because no-one could get there. The Survey Association had attempted to minimize this risk by utilizing crew to perform the survey. As Uth observed, “they share some DNA with marine surveyors”, Using crew to gather data, preferably in tandem with live-streaming of data from pre-installed sensors, eased the administrative burden, reduced the level of disruption that necessarily occurs when a visiting surveyor is on board, and cut travel time and costs, Uth said.

He emphasized that, while the “front line” provided video pictures, it was necessary to have expert marine surveyors “deskside”. Also, because the frontline representative would not be an expert in surveying, the IT solution needed to be “intuitive, simple and quick to use”.

Uth was enthusiastic about future possibilities, with the use of 360 degree video, the use of drones, self-surveying, and the use of machine-learning and algorithms within the survey procedure to assist any of the marine experts shoreside.

He noted that Covid-19 had put the remote surveying system, developed in 2017, to the test. In the example of the container ship fire 1,000 miles out to sea, although an in-person survey was obviously necessary when the vessel came to port, the use of remote surveying beforehand enabled an initial estimate of loss to be sent to the underwriter, and information to be gathered that accelerated the onboard survey process when it could take place.

Alex Harrison, meanwhile, observed the importance of a “feedback loop” and the benefits of using all senses, rather than just sight, to obtain a “gut feeling”. For proxy surveyors, who could add the additional senses, he highlighted a number of potential pitfalls that appeared when they were used.

Harrison noted that transitional change could always happen rapidly, and that a crisis would tend to accelerate the rate of change even more rapidly. There was, he said, an assumption that the move to remote surveying was a part of this transition, like the move from the horse to the motor car. After all, we seem to have all of the tools needed.

Harrison said that LOC had created its own digital department and had looked at the cost effectiveness of remote surveys. He felt that a more important question was to ask what processes should stay after the pandemic is over, and which ones should be rejected as processes best only used when other options were not available.

For MWS, although there were significant cost savings for individual surveys, Harrison felt that they were more suitable for the more routine, pre-arranged, type of survey, rather than complex marine operations, larger dynamic incident reports that are the result of an emergency, such as a casualty salvage response.

Harrison took issue with what was the main gain attributed to remote surveys – a reduction in cost.

He said that remote surveying involved considerable set-up costs. The remote surveys rely on pre-installed feedback loops and properly functioning software and hardware. For a bespoke survey, the costs of installing the software and hardware would be significantly greater than the cost of sending a surveyor. Therefore it was for routine, repeated and scheduled surveys, which might run for 20 years, that the cost benefit of remote surveying came through.

For remote surveys there were two clear types, said Harrison. The first was a desktop survey pure and simple, with documentation, photographs, video etc sent to LOC by the contractor, etc. Although there would often be a considerable amount of back-and-forth communication before the full dataset was obtained, a reasonable enough picture for an MWS can be obtained.

However, Harrison observed that this system came with its own problems – one of the major ones of which was that one could not be certain of the source of documentation (“was it on the bridge, or was it at head office sitting at the back of a cupboard?”). For photographic evidence, one could never be sure that one got the full context. Harrison emphasized that surveying used all of the senses. Using a purely desktop survey led to the loss of a number of information surveys.

An additional problem arose if a surveyor spotted something and wanted to communicate it in a timely fashion. If you are on the vessel, you can tap someone on the shoulder, or simply point at the problem. When you see it on a screen, you need to make contact with the right person. If this goes through one or more third parties, or if there are communication problems, it can be too late before the information gets to the right person, said Harrison.

Also, Harrison said one should never underestimate the information that a surveyor could pick up “away from the coalface”, for example in the galley or at the water cooler.

These problems with pure desktop surveys led to a second type of remote survey, one that used a proxy surveyor. While this solved a number of problems, it did not solve some and it introduced a few others.

The first question was, who is the proxy surveyor. If he or she does not have another role, then the question arose as to what kind of money was being saved by not sending a real surveyor. If the person had another role, then the proxy survey needs to take place while the person is in “downtime” from his or her main job. While this might work for routine inspections that can be pre-scheduled, they did not really work for incident response in a dynamic situation, said Harrison.

Secondly, because proxy surveyors were not experts, they tended to work from a list. And the problem with working on the list was the same as the famous case of the gorilla on the basketball court that nobody sees. If you are concentrating on something else, you miss the gorilla.

Finally, Harrison questioned whether a proxy surveyor could ever be completely impartial. They would have an employer, and he said that it would be naïve and unfair to expect a proxy surveyor to fail to want to work in the interests of their employer.

Harrison said that there seemed to have been an assumption during Covid-19 that a surveyor would not be able to get on site. He said that this belief (in the case of LOC) was misplaced. The company had a worldwide network of employed surveyors and freelance contract surveyors. Not infrequently they could make it to a vessel to undertake an on-the-spot survey. He concluded that while remote surveys had their place, particularly for the more routine operations, they should be a last resort, not a resort of preference.

“Current forms of remote survey cannot replicate physical attendance. They therefore come with inherent risks to their effectiveness in the prevention of potential claims”, said Harrison, adding that “underwriters, assureds and surveyors should consider carefully whether such processes should continue post-Covid”.

In a subsequent Q&A session, Uth and Harrison were mainly in agreement as to where and when remote surveys were suitable. Also, in answering another question, both said that an enthusiasm for remote surveys amongst surveyors could be based more on cost efficiency rather than inherent improvements.