The use of drones in shipping; coverage implications

In the latest Standard Club Technology Bulletin Deputy Underwriter Callum O’Brien noted that the pace of technological change in the shipping industry had accelerated exponentially in the last two years.

In order to monitor these changes and consider the implications for its membership, The Standard Club decided to establish a Technology Working Group, made up of representatives from across the company, including claims handlers, underwriters, loss prevention experts and IT directors from the Club’s London, Athens and Singapore offices.

A recently published technology bulletin highlighted some of the Club’s main areas of research to date.

One of the articles dealt with drone technology, which the author said had developed vastly over the last few years, with increased use by shipowners, surveyors and classification societies for various applications.

Ben Burkard, Underwriting Director, and Julian Hines, Loss Prevention Manager, wrote that drone technology had traditionally been associated with the military, but more recently had become popular for personal and commercial uses. Burkard and Hines looked at the potential uses in shipping.

Deliveries Companies were currently experimenting with drone delivery services for ships at anchorage, for items such as spare parts, mail, stores, documentation and medical equipment. Drones launched from onshore are capable of delivering to ships up to two miles away and it was estimated that the use of drones could reduce the cost of these services by 90%.

Currently, the biggest single use of drones in shipping was for inspection purposes. Some class societies were already using drones as part of their survey programme. This allowed for a much more comprehensive survey.

Examples included:

  • inspection of flare stack, tops of cranes and confined spaces. If repair work is necessary, the drone’s findings can be used in writing job specifications and access requirements
  • remote inspection of the hull exterior or interior of tanks and other areas where surveyors cannot get to during typical on/off hire condition surveys or routine inspections • inspection during repair, conversion and newbuilding of ships or prior to handover • damage surveys (aerial/tank) after an incident
  • inspection prior to reactivation of ships • inspections of moorings and anchorages
  • inspection of tow arrangement from tow lines through to the unmanned towed object
  • aerial videography for ship launch, delivery, mobilisation, demobilisation, loading of project cargo
  • port authorities testing ships’ emissions as they enter port
  • search and rescue.

The writers said that it was likely that Flag states would continue to drive the legal side. In the UK if a drone is to be operated for commercial purposes, it must follow UK CAA guidelines. Drone operators must first be approved and have appropriate insurance in place prior to submitting an application. The USA and countries in Europe and South East Asia follow similar regulations.

Loss prevention advice

A prudent owner considering the operation of drones onboard their vessel should:

  • gain clarification of regulatory approval (Class) to use the drone
  • ensure pilots have BVLOS certification and type approved training for the use of drones
  • where necessary, have a valid Activity Permit from the relevant civil aviation authority for every flight
  • complete a detailed risk assessment for the use of the drone
  • have appropriate operating procedures in place, including a permit to work.

The question many would be asking, of course, was whether liabilities arising from drones operated onboard ships would be covered by P&I?

Burkard and Hines said that whether the use of drones is, or should be, excluded by the pool had been considered by the International Group, and although it was acknowledged that it was an area that should be subject to ongoing debate, the position currently was that liabilities arising from the operation of a drone was not included within the list of excluded losses set out in the Pooling Agreement.

“In relation to services being provided by the ship, we would require either a knock for knock allocation or that the member does not assume responsibility for liabilities that they would not otherwise have had at law. Any services to the entered ship should be considered under the principles of best endeavours.”