Course Adjustments

Class societies show the way forward in uncertain times.

class shipping
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Published Oct 11, 2020 6:24 PM by Paul Benecki

(Article originally published in May/June 2020 edition.)

Class societies have a special role as the validators and innovation labs of the maritime industry. In the COVID-19 era, their capabilities are more important than ever. The pandemic and government response measures have made it substantially harder for shipowners to conduct routine operations, but class is developing alternative methods to help shipowners and their crews move forward.

New digitally-enabled remote surveys, online e-certificates and COVID-specific certifications all contribute to keeping ships on schedule in challenging times.

“Follow the Sun” Coverage

Class services are essential for the safety of life at sea, and some must be performed in person. But with the development of remote survey techniques, class societies are minimizing in-person attendance and maximizing flexibility for shipowners.

Many of the leading societies have already developed remote survey tools as part of their digital offerings, and this prior experience is proving its worth for Lloyd’s Register. COVID-19 has disrupted travel, trade, customs procedures and local port rules, making in-person attendance challenging in many locales. In response, the demand for remote options has taken off – so much so that LR has set up staff hubs in 16 locations to provide "follow-the-sun" coverage for remote surveys around the world. 

"We’ve experienced an accelerated demand for remote surveys,” says James Forsdyke, LR's Head of Product Management, Marine & Offshore, “and from March we saw a massive increase in remote engagement with our clients, rising from five to ten percent of complex surveys done remotely to more than 25 percent. LR’s remote capability has been critical in recent months as much of the work we’ve undertaken has required us to respond in difficult quarantine scenarios, managing multiple stakeholders to keep our clients, their people, ships and cargo safe and sailing."

The surveys are usually conducted on a purpose-built smartphone app – LR Remote – which can be downloaded from Google Play or Apple's App Store. Using the app, the crew can schedule a remote survey and videoconference in real time with LR specialists and third parties like representatives of the ship's flag state. For hazardous areas – for example, tanker pump rooms – the smartphone or tablet has to be placed inside an explosion-proof box before entering.

New Normal

At ABS, the Survey Division has moved rapidly to expand its portfolio of remote survey options. It says that for eligible vessels it can now conduct almost all annual surveys remotely including load line, hull and machinery.

"There’s nothing else in the industry that can compare with the depth and breadth of our remote survey offer,” notes Joe Riva, ABS Vice President & Chief Surveyor. “Remote survey is the new normal for ABS, and our clients are feeling the difference in terms of operational flexibility."

DNV GL was also an early adopter of remote survey services, and the option has been available to all clients since 2018. The interface is simple: Using a smartphone and livestreaming app, the crew videoconferences with a team of DNV GL experts to enable remote attendance, uploading any additional documentation as required.

The arrangement is based upon a preexisting DNV GL remote support service called Direct Access to Technical Experts (DATE), which leverages the expertise of technical staff in five locations around the world.

“The use of remote surveys has meant we’ve been able to limit disruptions to customer operations resulting from travel bans or quarantines involving our surveyors," says Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen, CEO of DNV GL – Maritime. "We are seeing the benefits of the full scope of digitalization initiatives we’ve been building up over the past few years."

The set of surveys offered remotely through DNV GL's platform covers occasional surveys, documentation-based surveys and other less intensive inspections. Annual surveys and other periodical surveys are not included in the society's remote offerings and still require in-person attendance. Nonetheless, innovation in remote inspection is ongoing at DNV GL: The society says it recently arranged for its first ever remotely-conducted cybersecurity assessment for an offshore asset.

Augment, Not Replace

At ClassNK, remote survey guidelines were launched in late 2019, before the pandemic hit. Like DNV GL, the available scope is centered on occasional surveys.

"ClassNK is investing in IT infrastructure to enhance its remote operation capabilities,” says Takeshi Okamoto, Corporate Officer & Director at ClassNK. “We’ve also been offering survey postponement, subject to the approval of the relevant flag state. Using advanced digital technologies allows our surveyors to perform their work remotely, which benefits the client but also keeps our staff safe."

Korean Register (KR) is also using remote technology for several smaller survey categories including the continuous machinery survey, confirmation of repairs and minor damage surveys. KR says it completed 20 remote surveys for shipowners in the first six weeks after the shutdown began.

The COVID-19 pandemic is altering the way the entire world conducts business and, as the remote survey boom shows, creates an opportunity to accelerate digitalization and technological development – up to a point.

“In recent months we’ve seen a significant acceleration in the acceptance of digital tools and working practices,” says Nick Brown, Communications Director for Bureau Veritas' Marine & Offshore Division. “We can see this across all industries and in our personal lives. But we will still need surveyors on board ships. Digital technology will augment rather than replace surveyors and their technical expertise.”

“Restart” Certification

In addition to its remote services, Bureau Veritas is innovating with a new form of certification – a "Restart" service aimed at helping companies of all kinds return to business in the COVID-19 era. BV is a diversified certification and inspection company with a long history of service to shoreside industries. It’s leveraging that expertise to contribute to the process of reopening society.

"The ‘Restart’ service was developed to help business get back on its feet and do so in a way that provided society with trust and confidence in this climate of coronavirus risk,” says Brown. “The world economy needs to avoid a second coronavirus infection surge, and businesses and policymakers will benefit from a uniform hygiene and health safety standard in hospitality, retail, office accommodation, factories and schools."

BV’s "Restart Your Business With BV" certification program has already been adopted by two of the world's leading hospitality companies, Melia Hotels and Accor Hotels, which together operate more than 800,000 rooms in 140 countries. The program is applicable to the maritime sector too – especially for passenger vessel operators, who share many of the same challenges as hoteliers.

"BV will shortly be announcing a specific ‘Restart’-related service for maritime,” adds Brown. “Cruise and passenger ferries so heavily affected have shown significant interest. BV is anticipating potential demand to help ensure the industry is able to operate in confidence, protecting the health and safety of all stakeholders, afloat and shore."

Looking to the Future

Even in the midst of the pandemic, class has a unique responsibility to look to the future. Researchers and experts at leading class societies are essential to developing new maritime technologies, operating practices and regulations.

Georgios Plevrakis, for example, Global Sustainability Director at ABS, has been hard at work on the question of how to cut shipping's CO2 emissions in half by 2050 – the IMO’s target for greenhouse gas reduction.

Despite the outbreak, Plevrakis’ team recently completed a comprehensive, 100-page study of the pathways shipping could take to achieve the IMO 2050 goal. "It was the product of many sleepless nights," he jokes. His team took an uncompromising look at scenarios in which the industry could reduce emissions by 50 percent by midcentury, and it doesn't look easy.

Even if shipping hits the IMO's carbon-intensity target – an ambitious 70 percent cut in CO2 emissions per unit of transport work by 2050 – Plevrakis' team expects it will still miss the 50 percent total CO2 reduction target, simply because there will be more ships and more shipping.

"We’re going to achieve the intensity reduction target,” he says, “but hitting the annual emissions target is going to be hard to impossible under the base case scenario."

Two Options

Hitting the CO2 target would require one of two things to occur. The first option would be an ambitious industry effort to cut the market share of oil-based bunker fuel below 40 percent with initial steps under way by the end of this decade. The alternative option depends upon external action: a worldwide energy decarbonization effort in line with the Paris Climate Accord.

According to the study, this scenario would mean less global demand for coal, oil and other carbon-intensive cargoes, which would translate into less demand for shipping. Plevrakis' team estimates this reduction in demand would cut the industry's emissions by about one-third (relative to the base case scenario).

This could be politically and economically challenging to achieve – not to mention the impact on shipping. The study suggests that – like the COVID-19 pandemic – the outcome may depend on how the world responds to a society-wide challenge. "It would require changes from across the value chain, including commercial behavior and consumer behavior," he says.

Leading in Uncertain Times

This study is far from the end of ABS’ research. Many of Plevrakis' team members are now working on an E.U.-funded review of the IMO Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI) regulation, an existing mechanism aimed at reducing CO2 emissions from shipping.

According to Plevrakis, the review is on track despite disruption from the outbreak – another demonstration that class is still leading in the coronavirus era. 

Paul Benecki is the magazine’s Americas/Europe Editor.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.