Remote Inspection is a term used to refer to the performance of inspection using technology such as video feed while an intermediary person moves in the inspector’s direction around with the camera. The inspector is located off-site at a remote location while the intermediary, typically the person working at the business or site, is on-site. The intermediary person can be anyone with the appropriate training and approval to act in this role including the customer or inspector’s staff.
Remote inspection can also refer to inspections performed where the inspector is on-site but does not look at the object or area being inspected directly, but rather through the use of an intermediary such as a person, robot or drone. It is commonly used at times when risks to health and safety or other conditions render in-person inspections inadvisable.
The same principles apply to Remote Audits, where electronic document sharing is used to review procedures, records, and other documentation. And cameras may be carried or worn to provide access to the needed areas and records to confirm compliance.
Remote inspections and remote audits can be used in concert with in-person inspections.
RINA started investing in digitalization well in advance of the pandemic and has therefore been able to carry out remote surveys since the very beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, in compliance with the applicable authorization and accreditation rules.
In the marine sector, RINA has successfully carried out the world first ship inspection survey, on behalf of the Liberian Flag, with the use of remote technologies. The survey included an inspection of the hull and machinery and close-up surveys of ballast tanks and cargo holds were carried out through drones.
RINA carried out more than 30% of management system audit days in remote and the technique has also been applied to product and personnel certification as well as to inspection activities.
The possibility to carry out an inspection/audit or a part of it remotely was already in place before COVID-19. The pandemic has increased the use of this technique as a measure to limit the spread of the virus and has therefore accelerated a process that was already underway and would have required more time to succeed. The more frequent use of this technique will no doubt highlight other benefits and advantages it may offer in terms of efficiency, effectiveness, and safety.
When determining whether to proceed with a remote inspection, the inspector will first verify the availability of suitable IT tools, measuring tools and other test equipment and their capacity to ensure a proper level of access to needed items and records. He will also verify the nature and complexity of the inspection, the client’s ability in using online tools and its willingness to share information and documentation through virtual means.
Conformity assessment activities are based and will continue to be based on the inspector’s judgment, based on his competence, impartiality, and independence. Competence is in turn based on qualification, training, and experience. Although it will not replace the inspector, no doubt technology plays a key role, as it more and more helps the inspector in collecting data, carrying out his analyses and taking correct decisions, while preserving his safety and security, as it happens in the present pandemic and in case of access in confined spaces or in a potentially toxic or explosive atmosphere.
I would say in an increasingly conscious way. The industry is becoming aware that remote surveys when carried out in controlled conditions may be not only equivalent, but more efficient, effective, and safer than in-person inspections. Remote inspections provide details of remote and inaccessible elements and allow senior experts to be quickly and easily involved during the inspection, should difficulties arise. They reduce days and time spent travelling in air, car, and boat, thus making additional time available for value-added activities, and lowering air emissions and carbon footprint. Audio and video recording of remote inspection may be used to improve the robustness of the review and will allow inspection bodies to supervise inspectors as part of their internal quality assurance process.
First, in those cases where in-person inspection is difficult (e.g. in case of remote locations and inaccessible environments) or potentially unsafe (e.g. in confined or hazardous spaces). Secondly, in case of simple verifications (e.g. when a first in-person inspection has been carried out and a re-inspection is needed). In the medium term, in all those circumstances where remote inspections improve efficiency while ensuring at least the same level of effectiveness.
Remote inspections are already incorporated in industries and locations like construction sites, manufacturing facilities, marine assets and equipment and biohazard sites. Their use and the rapid and continuous improvement of IT technologies and tools (e.g. drones, hand-held tablets and wearables) have proven that remote inspections if applied in a controlled and conscious way and with a risk-based approach can replace and enhance the use of intermediaries and improve efficiency while ensuring at least the same level of effectiveness.
I believe that the available technology and tools make remote auditing and inspections applicable in principle and at certain conditions to all sectors. The main issue today is culture, i.e. the attitude to change and the willingness to share information and documentation through virtual means. Another limit is represented by privacy concerns and data protection, which require significant investments in cyber-security.
In my view, the main risk is presently represented by inappropriate and/or inadequate IT technologies, tools, and test equipment, poor ability in their use and, last but not least, the potential misunderstanding that the new techniques and tools replace the inspector’s technical judgment. Another risk is represented by data protection. The use of new technologies and changes and innovations, in general, bring inevitably an increased inherent risk. However, this should not discourage their application, as effective mitigating measures are already available.
Remote inspections were already in use before the pandemic and, because of the extreme situation, they have quickly become widely used and a valid alternative to in-person audits, delivering the same quality results. I am convinced, though, that their potential still must be fully explored and that, to be able to take the next step in this fast-paced environment, we need to embrace completely the technology that is now available, make sure all stakeholders in the industry are familiar with it and progress from there to a new level of service delivery.
I believe that the industry will become increasingly aware of the benefits, in terms of effectiveness and efficiency, of remote audits and inspections and I expect increased use of them in the ongoing health emergency. I also expect that its use will continue in the desired new-normal condition.
The possibility to carry out an audit or a part of it remotely was already foreseen and regulated before the pandemic by the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) and is now envisaged by several national accreditation bodies and scheme owners.
While some scheme owners are still evaluating whether a full remote audit may replace an in-person audit or inspection, standardisation, regulatory, and accreditation bodies are reviewing the present requirements in the light of digital developments and the feed-back from the increased use of remote techniques in the pandemic.
The TIC industry is providing its contribution to demonstrate that remote audits can be used in new-normal conditions in those situations where they may improve effectiveness, efficiency, and safety.