Remote pilotage – perspective and risks to consider

Captain John Dolan, Deputy Director of Loss Prevention at Standard Club, has written an article that acknowledges the risk factors that should be carefully considered before the practise of remote pilotage is undertaken, and shares club concerns and recommendations.

He noted that the shipping industry had always been characterized by uncertain and volatile markets, stricter regulations and rapid evolution of technology, but with the Covid-19 pandemic,  these conditions were fluctuating more aggressively.” We are seeing unprecedented impacts on the movement of cargoes, domestically and internationally, as the world adjusts to the new ‘normal’ of port delays, restrictions on ship movements and, in some cases, the reduced availability of support personnel to assist the vessels’ movements”, Dolan said.

Remote piloting allows qualified pilots, situated on land or on a pilot boat, to guide the vessel remotely. Experienced Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) personnel, seated at their screens in the control centre ashore, may also provide instructions to the master. During remote pilotage, the pilots do not have direct access to data from the ship’s navigational equipment. They need to rely on information from their own tracking device or information being relayed by the vessel’s bridge team over the VHF or other means of communication.

Dolan said that, given the potential shortage of key port staff during this pandemic, Standard Club had received several inquiries in recent weeks from members seeking guidance relating to remote pilotage. The club’s Loss Prevention team consulted several senior pilots to assess the situation and examine the risks that masters, and bridge teams might encounter when remote pilotage was required.

“We understand that some ports are enforcing remote pilotage on ships that arrive from countries where there is a high risk of Covid-19 infection or where crew members from high-risk countries have joined the ship recently”, Dolan said, adding that the practice has been used for many years, particularly in north-western European ports, when adverse weather conditions outside of specific ports prevented the efficient movement of shipping over a sustained period.

He said that technology, both ashore and afloat, had evolved and improved greatly in recent years, and communication systems, radar systems, ECDIS and Global Navigation Satellite System/GPS could now provide real-time information reliably and accurately. However, he said that some concerns must not be overlooked.

Experienced pilots had advised that, despite improvements to these technologies and navigation systems, they still malfunctioned and occasionally in a manner that was not detected by the bridge team in time to prevent a casualty.

There were also concerns relating to inconsistent performance standards of the bridge teams, and language barriers causing communication challenges among cosmopolitan crew and shore personnel.

More critical were concerns that the VTS personnel ashore often lacked experience and the necessary ‘feel’ for the ship. When these fears were expressed by experienced pilots, they were often dismissed by the VTS operators and the providers of sophisticated and technically advanced hardware as “traditionalists’ biases”.

Dolan said that in his view this assumption was wrong and that the felt that it elevated the risk of serious errors occurring.

Standard Club’s advice remained that such remote pilotage should be performed only when it was a mandatory requirement according to port regulations. It should not be undertaken in any other circumstances unless there was an emergency or a compelling need for the safety of the ship or crew members. The pilotage should be limited to taking the ship from the port’s usual pilot boarding position to the customary anchorage where vessels wait for their berths.

Standard Club said that it would not recommend remote pilotage for berthing or unberthing or connecting tugs during the transit.

The Club said that its caution arose from its practical shipboard experience, from P&I claims records and from consulting with pilots who advised that remote pilotage would always lead to less efficient control of the ship. This was principally due to a lag in communication between the ship and the remote pilot who was monitoring and guiding the master.

Additionally, the Club said that masters should always be aware of the risk that the VTS advisor ashore might not be a qualified and experienced pilot. The individual might have satisfied the competency requirements to be a VTS operator, but might lack the detailed knowledge of the ship and its handling characteristics. This, said Dolan, presented an elevated risk which the master must always be alert to.

Mitigating the risk factors

When it came to remote pilotage, the passage needed to be planned with the utmost care.

Below is a list of some of the principal risk factors which the Club said should be considered carefully before such an operation is undertaken. (The Club used an inward passage from pilot station to the anchorage as an example):

  • The pilotage area. How complex is it, for example, is it an open sea anchorage, a river passage, etc?
  • The technology on board the ship and its limitations, including the operators’ knowledge and experience in using the equipment (DGPS, ECDIS, Doppler Log, Comms, etc)
  • The experience and training of the master (manned model course, ship-handling skills)
  • The experience of the port, pilot and/or VTS operator. In planning the passage, the master on board a member’s vessel should plan for the situation whereby the person ashore has limited experience in guiding his type of ship during the passage.
  • The use of a pilot boat or pilot ashore. Will the pilot remain on the pilot boat for the duration of the passage and guide the master inwards while issuing course/ speed instructions over the radio? Or will the pilot be ashore and only have electronic means of monitoring the vessel’s passage?
  • The master’s familiarity of the port/area. Is this the first time that the master has called at the port? If so, greater caution is required and the member should act prudently, perhaps by avoiding the remote pilotage altogether.
  • Expected traffic density (in and out).
  • Time of day. Such a pilotage should, in the club’s view, only be undertaken in daylight.
  • Expected weather. Adverse weather will increase the risks, especially if there is a risk of reduced visibility during the passage. If so, the pilotage should be deferred until the weather improves. The master and the bridge team should, however, be experienced at navigating using radar and navigational systems only.
  • Duration of the remote pilotage. It is vital that the bridge team is well rested before commencing the inward passage.

Communication arrangements to personnel ashore and to the pilot.

The success or failure of the remote pilotage often rested on the quality of communication between ship and shore. Crisp and clear instructions were essential and had to be checked and verified on every change of course and/or speed. There should be no distractions, unnecessary conversations or unnecessary personnel present on the bridge during this operation.

  • Size of the vessel. A large vessel relative to the width/depth of the approach channel will present an elevated risk of grounding due to unexpected dynamic forces acting on the hull.
  • What notice period is given for the use of remote pilotage? Ideally, the master should have sufficient time to consider, and plan for, all of the risk factors that accompany a remote pilotage operation. The club believes that at least a day’s notice would be appropriate to allow sufficient time to complete a risk assessment of the planned movement. The master should never be instructed to proceed inwards under remote pilotage conditions upon arrival at the pilot station.
  • The passage plan is effectively the practical application of the risk assessment process. It should identify all the attendant hazards and state the mitigating factors to reduce the associated risks. These factors will include the minimum under keel clearance required, detailed port approaches information including reporting points, ‘choke’ locations in the channel, highlighted tidal/current information and any navigation warnings concerning navigation buoys and their light and sound characteristics.