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International Hull and Machinery Consultancy (IHMCo)

Marine Survey and Investigation

Remote Virtual Pre Purchase and Condition Surveys

Recently, I was requested to conduct a full pre-purchase survey of a medium sized bulker in Asia. However, getting to the vessel proved impossible due to Covid19 travel restrictions. After consultation with the client it was decided that a virtual survey of the vessel would be acceptable. Upon the completion of the survey, the client had the following words:

“Excellent report, just what we needed and better than some we receive after surveyors have actually attended the vessel!”

I now look back to ask if a virtual survey can indeed replace physical attendance or if it is simply a stop-gap method until normal service resumes?

Regardless of whether the survey requires physical attendance, or if it is conducted virtually the surveyor must have the same skills - one does not preclude the other. But categorically the experience of the surveyor is of the utmost importance, more so during a virtual survey. By nature of requesting information and then having no direct power to influence the speed of the return of it results in an extended survey time. In other words, to physically attend a survey is to apply immediate pressure - far harder for the vessel to cover-up or purposely miss items. Conversely, a virtual survey gives ample time and ease to do so!

I therefore do not agree that virtual surveys are the way forward as the potential then exists for something to be missed; least of the smell, sound and 'feel'. However, a virtual survey is a positive stopgap measure that could be later used in specific circumstance or indeed as evidence to a condition correction without necessity for reattendance. A virtual survey is simply another tool to the surveyor’s belt and one that will likely appeal to clients. But nothing in this world will replace the physical presence; the knowledge and experience of the surveyor picking and flowing with the receipt of information as he / she works around the vessel - it is often the very ambiance and the demeanour of the master and his (face) reactions that can alter the surveyor's line of interest, something that a virtual survey would never pick up on.

And, when conducting a physical survey, whether it is for condition, pre-purchase, or damage (risk or potential based) all five body senses are used. ‘Taste’ is only rarely invoked but the rest are commonly used and have led to many a surveyor’s success. To take away ‘feel’ and ‘smell’ is to reduce the surveyor’s available tools and his ability to survey.

But certain aspects of a virtual survey could be advance upon to make them stauncher and more predictable in outcome. One of these is fast internet whilst the vessel is at sea / in port. For larger ships this may not currently be an issue but bulk carriers, small tankers and coastal vessels are heavily restricted by the bandwidth of their service provider: a 480 kilobyte upload speed does not allow for live feed, and high resolution photographs and videos would take days to upload.

I certainly do not think anything will beat solid attendance, however a well-planned and conducted virtual survey is a good second best. And in time, as systems, equipment and mind set evolve the output from a virtual survey will only improve. But regardless of whether the survey is physical or virtual the result will invariably come down to the skill and experience of the surveyor and this should always be taken into account, more so if the survey is to be conducted virtually.

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