The pros and cons of remote monitoring on ship

Malcolm Latarche

Malcolm Latarche · 10 May 2017


Remote monitoring is said to deliver savings in service costs or anything from 10-30% when measured against traditional preventive maintenance which would seem to make it something that owners would be clamouring for.

Yet as things stand only about one in 10 vessels are signed up to some form of monitoring service and the number of shipowners concerned is really quite small. By far the majority of the contracts are engine related but numerous other systems are also involved.

Unless it is done in house, remote monitoring or maintenance will come with a price attached. As with any service or product, shipowners will need to weigh the advantages against the cost and any disadvantages that they may find exist.

Condition based maintenance is very common outside of the shipping industry and remote monitoring is also an idea with a proven track record in things such as wind farms and oil and gas extraction and mining. Therefore, owners need not regard the idea as something new and untried. Shipping may present more of a challenge if the whole ship is to be the subject of an agreement rather than one piece or type of equipment but the experience of service providers can be judged both on reputation and on investigation into their skills and experience with marine systems.

The biggest obstacle will come with real time services because of the communication constraints that shipping is subject to. The matter is not necessarily insurmountable because land based systems also suffer from communication outages from time to time. It is even possible that a ship may in some cases have more options with access to L-Band services such as Inmarsat, VSAT, Iridium and even when close enough to shore with wi-fi or mobile telephone networks.

In the early days of mechanised ships, owners were nearly always reliant on their own staff unless the engineer was supplied and paid for as part of the contract for the cost of machinery. A very similar situation existed when radio was first introduced when the radio operators would be supplied by a company such as Marconi. If remote monitoring and maintenance can be proved to meet the expectations of considerable reduced expenditure in time and money on maintenance and spare parts it will inevitably become mainstream.

As always with innovative technology, once the system or equipment becomes commonplace, users tend to wish to save money by doing their own servicing and repair. Not only is this cheaper but it protects in case of closure of the equipment supplier. Improving technology has allowed shipowners to reduce crew numbers across all departments over the last half century but there is a limit on how far numbers can be cut.

That said, the need for several qualified engineers on a ship may be reduced if real time guidance in how to carry out a procedure is available. The use of helmet cameras and a connection to an onshore technician could allow this but some may think it a step too far. It is however something that many seafarers would be happy with given that modern equipment can be more complex and sophisticated than what they are used to and it would allow them to work with equipment that they have little knowledge of.

How such a situation might be covered by the STCW regulations needs to be considered and there will also be a need for flag states to be convinced with regard to minimum safe manning regulations. The fatigue factor must also not be overlooked. Predicting the potential failure across multiple unconnected systems that a full ship remote monitoring service might give, would be a considerable boon to shipowners as it would allow for all services to be carried out simultaneously at a convenient place and time. Even more useful would be the opportunity to reduce classification and SOLAS surveys and inspections because a continuous record of the equipment’s operational capabilities is available.

The benefits to an owner will arguably be greater when the number of vessels in a fleet is high. In such cases there is more likely to be a series of sister vessels which would allow for more data to be collected that is relevant to all ships rather than just a single vessel. It should be clearly understood that any dividends in terms of reliability will not be instant. For any trending to be possible at all there is a need to collect sufficient data and depending on the equipment involved this could take months or even years. With regard to scheduling repairs so as to minimise downtime, a small fleet where the superintendent is in daily contact with vessels discussing problems and issues may not benefit much if at all. In such situations the superintendent often has a good handle on what is happening on board across all systems and can plan accordingly.

That said, the sudden departure of the superintendent for any reason will leave the shipowner in a predicament that the continuity permitted by a larger organisation would have prevented. On the downside, if time charterers or others are aware that a ship is being continually monitored, any breakdown or other issue would certainly have been recorded and they may have a right to inspect records. Theoretically it might be possible for a time charterer to discover that notwithstanding the prevailing weather conditions at a particular moment would have prevented a ship from maintaining its guaranteed speed, it would have been impossible in any case because of an issue with an engine that the owner has not declared. Such a situation is hypothetical but often there are consequences that may have been overlooked.

For the service providers there would appear to be few downsides to what they are planning to offer. Even if the promise of longer component life and fewer overhauls would seem to suggest a reduced income from inspections and spare parts sales, this will likely be offset to a degree by a subscription income. Most OEMs these days are obliged to offer service facilities on a global scale. That can either be arranged through their own facilities or by arrangements with independent contractors. The first can be particularly expensive as staff are needed to meet peaks in demand but on occasion there may be little paying work for them to undertake.

The predictability allowed for by remote monitoring and CBM may permit fewer staff needing to be employed and a smaller inventory of spare parts. What work is needed could well be done in a shorter time because in many cases the problem will be known and there will be no need to carry a range of spare parts just in case.

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