Ship assessors are resorting to virtual inspections of oil tankers to keep vessels afloat, as the coronavirus pandemic makes physical visits to check for seaworthiness tougher and a slump in fuel demand increases the need for ships as storage.
Oil tankers require rigorous inspections twice a year to reduce the risk of oil spills or mechanical collapse with polluting cargoes onboard.
But the global pandemic has disrupted international trade, leaving merchant seafarers stuck on ships for weeks because of limits on air travel and bans on the movement of people even as some countries start easing restrictions.
With an estimated 160 million barrels of surplus oil being kept onboard dozens of tankers because on-land storage is full, the situation is pressing.
If restrictions on access to ships stay in place towards the final quarter of the year, tankers may be unable to store oil or sail until repairs can be carried out. This could drive up freight rates for shipping and storage, as fewer vessels will be seaworthy.
Shipping sources say many tankers are already overdue inspections to determine if a ship is fit to carry oil cargoes. The problems include the fear of infection and constraints on travel.
“If the crew or master does not feel safe with anyone coming onboard then you cannot put an inspector onboard,” said Rob Drysdale, a director with the Oil Companies International Marine Forum (OCIMF) association.
As a solution, remote surveys are taking place via live streaming as the ship’s captain and other crew members walk around a vessel to specific areas for checks, drawing on previous inspection reports that have highlighted issues.
The effectiveness of virtual inspections only buys time, especially as many vessels in the global fleet are ageing. Remote surveys can also take longer and require weeks of work to process versus a few days for an on-site inspection.