Robots to the rescue?

Let’s make sure that there is a proper review of remote processes before we fully embrace them

In this strange and horrible pandemic, much has been made of the need for everyone to minimise human contact. You might argue that this brings as many problems as it prevents, but it has been interesting to see the ingenuity that is being displayed to fulfil this aim. Clever communications, artificial intelligence and remote devices are all being given a boost by our horror of getting close to other people, ashore and afloat.

Survey and inspection are prominent areas where the use of remote working has come to the fore. With an engineer aboard ship armed with a high definition camera, speaking in real time to the surveyor ashore, it has been possible to undertake a whole range of survey work to machinery and structure.

Classification societies have been prominent in devising a range of remote surveys that preclude the need for a physical inspection by the person who must sign the certificate. It has been suggested that such has been the success of these remote inspections, they might become more regularly established when the pandemic has receded. Why go back to the old ways, when the new can do the job adequately?

The use of drones to closely inspect parts of the ship which previously would have demanded expensive scaffolding or cherry pickers was no longer a novelty when Covid-19 struck, but it is fair to say that the employment of these devices has seen a steep increase. They are effective, cheap and have improved massively in terms of the close-up definition possible with the best camera lenses. They have been employed to airfreight small items to ships in a roadstead and this may well increase as the capacity and precision of drones improves.


Even the controversial issue of remote pilotage has been suggested as a method of protecting human pilots from the risks of piloting ships where the disease may have a foothold on board, or indeed, protecting the crew if it has become established ashore. A pilot, safe in the protected environment of the VTS tower, could, some say, take a ship in or out of port in perfect safety, just as long as there are good communications with an efficient bridge team.

Similarly, effective electronic interchange of documents could, it is suggested, minimise the visiting need for the authorities, the ship’s agents or many others who would normally wish to meet an arriving ship.

The question is, however, not why these strategies should be employed at a time of crisis, but whether the ‘robot’ or remote working should become permanently established when the industry returns to a semblance of normality? There may well be convincing arguments for this, but equally, it is important that there should be a proper review, in which the possible disadvantages are adequately discussed.

Are human surveyors, using their eyes and experience, necessarily better than the emergency strategy of remote working? There is a strong case to be made for the human element here and the interchange between the surveyor and the ship’s personnel which may be missing in a remote discussion. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the judgement of an experienced person may be diluted by distance. And while a remote camera aboard a drone might give an excellent picture, it may miss the deep-seated crack that is just starting to propagate and needs human investigation. It is the human being, familiar with the ship or machinery, who may well express concerns that will not be discerned by a machine. And as pilots have said over the years, remote working may be possible but even the best instruments are unlikely to capture the development of a dynamic situation, unlike a human on the spot.