How robots could limit the environmental impact of offshore windfarms

Wind turbines require frequent maintenance – a job that can pose dangers for human operators and produces a significant carbon footprint. Peter Dargatz/Pixabay

David Flynn, Heriot-Watt University

Spending on global offshore renewable energy infrastructure over the next ten years is expected to reach over US$16 billion (£11.3bn). This involves creating an extra 2.5 million kilometres of global submarine cables by 2030.

To lay and secure these cables against ocean currents involves ploughing the seabed and dumping rocks and concrete “mattresses” to serve as a base for the cables – procedures which are highly disruptive to the marine ecosystem that so many creatures call home.

Installing windfarms offshore requires many such high-impact procedures, which are often undertaken with little consideration of their effects on the delicately balanced ocean environment – which over 3 billion people rely on for their food and livelihoods.

Human activities, including building renewable energy infrastructure, have affected over 40% of the ocean’s surface, creating dead ocean zones devoid of oxygen, algae blooms that harm marine species and a devastating loss of biodiversity.

If we continue down this path, the predicted green-tech revolution risks causing an unprecedented level of damage to the world’s oceans. The new generation of renewable energy producers must assess their long-term impact on the ocean environment to evaluate how sustainable their supply chains and practices really are.

As the UN begins its decade of Ocean Resilience this year, the role that autonomous technologies can play in supporting the marine environment continues to gain recognition. We can’t expect to implement sustainable technology without first instilling environmentally conscious practices within the renewable energy sector itself. That’s where robotics comes in.

The cost of maintenance

About 80% of the cost of maintaining offshore windfarms is spent on sending people to carry out inspections and repairs via helicopter, maintaining support vehicles, such as boats, and building offshore platforms to house turbine workers. All of these rack up carbon emissions. Not only that, offshore inspectors also need to work at risky heights and in confined spaces, both of which are dangerous.

A red boat approaches a wind turbine at sea
Turbine maintenance is costly, dangerous and not friendly to the environment. Anette Bjerg/Pixabay

However, a unified team of humans, robots and AI working together could maintain this infrastructure with significantly less impact on the environment and better safety for humans. These teams might include humans working remotely with multi-robot teams of autonomous aerial and underwater vehicles, as well as with crawling or land-based robots.

Transformative tech

Robotics can help humans interact with complex, vulnerable environments without harming them. Robots that use non-contact methods of sensing, such as radar and sonar, can interact with ocean infrastructure and its surrounding environment without causing any disruption or damage.

Even more advanced sensing technology known as low-frequency sonar – sound-based technology inspired by the signals used by dolphins to communicate – makes it possible to inspect structures such as subsea infrastructure and submarine cables in the ocean without damaging the surrounding environment.

By deploying low-frequency sonar technology using autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) – robots that drive themselves – we can better understand how structures such as underwater cables are interacting with the environment. We can also help avoid issues like biofouling, where microorganisms, plants, algae or small animals accumulate on surfaces of cables. A bio-fouled cable can grow heavy, potentially distorting its outer protective layers and decreasing its useful life span. AUVs can monitor and clean these cables safely.

A yellow submarine vehicle is mounted on a stand on land
Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) have numerous applications when it comes to maintaining and repairing turbines out at sea. Zil/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Above the surface

Robots can provide help above the water, too. When wind turbine blades reach the end of their useful lives, they are often burned or thrown into landfill. This directly counteracts the “circular economy” approach – advocating for waste prevention and reuse of as many materials as possible – that’s central to achieving technological sustainability. Instead, we can use robots to repair, repurpose or recycle degrading blades, reducing unnecessary waste.

Using drones fitted with advanced radar sensing technology, we can now see defects in the turbines as they begin to develop. Instead of using field support vessels to transport turbine inspectors offshore – costing around £250,000 a day – using robot assistants to keep updated on turbine maintenance saves time, money and risk.

A drone is silhouetted against a sunset, with the sea beneath
Drones can provide a low-energy stand-in for humans when turbines need assessing for damage. Aaron Burden/Unsplash, CC BY

As well as cutting the financial and carbon cost of turbine maintenance, robots can minimise the inherent risks to humans working in these unpredictable environments while also working more symbiotically with the environment. By deploying resident robots to inspect and maintain offshore renewable infrastructure, energy companies could initially reduce the number of people working in dangerous offshore roles. In time, we could even reach a point of autonomous operation – where human operators remain onshore and connect remotely to offshore robotics systems.

AI is another key component in building sustainable energy systems. For example, artificially intelligent programs can help energy companies plan how to safely disassemble turbines and bring them safely back to shore. Following their arrival onshore, turbines can be taken to “smart” factories that use a combination of robotics and AI to identify which of its parts can be reused.

Working in these teams, we can develop a robust, sustainable circular economy for the offshore renewable energy sector.

David Flynn, Professor, Embedded Intelligence in Energy Systems, Heriot-Watt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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May 23, 2021 10:08 am

So much for the green jobs promised to laid off XL pipeline workers. Drones and robots will get them.

Joseph Zorzin
Reply to  Ferdberple
May 23, 2021 10:54 am

And have robots out there sweeping crud off of solar panels? Once robots can be developed to do the maintenance, they’ll be trained to install wind and solar energy. Then the lefties will start worrying about the beating the robots get out there in the harsh environment and they’ll start a “robots’ lives matter” movement.

Reply to  Joseph Zorzin
May 23, 2021 11:18 am

First, the lefties have to lobby for the robots to be voters.

Reply to  Ferdberple
May 23, 2021 1:10 pm

Joey sez the laid off workers can build robots….which build robots that build robots…uh, appears robots are takin’ over.

Reply to  Ferdberple
May 25, 2021 9:56 pm

They can still learn to code.

May 23, 2021 10:15 am

…and the costs just keep going up and up and up

May 23, 2021 10:29 am

Robotics and salt water / storms / high winds go so well together that I can’t imagine anything wrong with this position.

Teddy Lee
May 23, 2021 10:32 am

A cost reduction measure?..???

Reply to  Teddy Lee
May 23, 2021 11:26 am

Yes, all these robots are free or very cheap in their feeble mind.

Reply to  catcracking
May 23, 2021 1:12 pm

Of course they are free, you don’t have to pay them wages.
Do I really need a sarc tag?

Reply to  catcracking
May 23, 2021 1:54 pm

This reads like a high school term paper. One where the instructor isn’t requiring any references to support any of the claims, or any kind of credible analysis of the costs. Pure hand waving.

Reply to  catcracking
May 23, 2021 2:43 pm

They never need servicing either.

Peta of Newark
May 23, 2021 10:52 am

after self-driving cars became an expensive train-wreck, we look forward to ‘self driving windmills’

Dare I ask who or what was in charge of the Ever Green Given recently
Enquiring Minds etc…
Quote: (random search result)
How did it get stuck? It turns out strong winds, dust storms and massive ships don’t mix”

Aha, the windmills will be fine – No Dust Storms you see…. <taps nose>

It is not looking good is it, esp after folks shelled out £20 to watch a pre-recorded video, at a certain given time, on the interweb.
Glastonbury Fail

(I may have been in the area at the time, still am in fact, but nothing to do with me. I was listening Twitch. At least Bezos can still organise a rave)

Reply to  Peta of Newark
May 23, 2021 2:44 pm

The greens never expect humans to do any work.

Reply to  walt
May 23, 2021 4:03 pm

Never expect others to do what you will not.

Reply to  Peta of Newark
May 25, 2021 9:57 pm

And ignore those dead birds washing up on the shore with missing heads and limbs. It’s all for a good cause – green energy and especially those who invest in green energy.

May 23, 2021 10:53 am

we can use robots to repair, repurpose or recycle degrading blades, reducing unnecessary waste.
Apparently, robots know how to do things that we do not. We have no idea how to recycle those massive turbine blades. As of now they go into specially designed landfills. But no problem, just put a robot on the job.

More Magic!
artificially intelligent programs can help energy companies plan how to safely disassemble turbines
a combination of robotics and AI to identify which of its parts can be reused.

All this fantastic use of robotics and AI to do mundane things we can not do ourselves.

It makes me wonder how we ever pulled off the Industrial Revolution.

On the other hand:
The new generations coming up are singularly helpless. It seems they cannot keep their noses out of their phones long enough to learn how to do even the simplest things. As these generations come of age, robotics and AI will be needed to do everything from checking the air and changing the oil to making the coffee.

Reply to  TonyL
May 23, 2021 2:45 pm

Often the new generation cannot even sign their own name.

Reply to  walt
May 23, 2021 4:04 pm

The schools would have to teach cursive for such things as name signing. They can, for the nonce, print their own names. I suppose that’s something.

Reply to  Spetzer86
May 23, 2021 10:59 pm

Not without spell check

May 23, 2021 10:56 am

Your posting of articles from “The Conversation” sent me to vie that site. What a load of leftist crapola. I especially like their subtitle, “Academic rigor, journalistic flair”. No academic rigor to be found. At least not to the standards of even COMMENTORS at WUWT, Simon, griff, etc. excepted.

May 23, 2021 11:02 am

This is ignorantly foolish academic speculation.
Per EIA 2021, the LCOE of offshore wind is ~3.7x that of onshore wind. Easily googled official estimate.

Back in 2015 at Climate Etc I posted ‘True Cost of Wind’ (still easily available via the search bar there). That year EIA said onshore wind was competitive with CCGT, with both at about $90/MWh LCOE.

Turns out that was grossly and deliberately, yet ‘officially’, misleading because of fine print ‘new or should have known’ negligently false assumptions. The most egregious was both having 30 year capital lives. That is deliberate ‘gross negligence’; CCGT has an easily verified manufacturer’s warranty for 40 years, while larger capacity onshore wind usually doesn’t make 20 years because of axial bearing failure from unavoidable wobble caused by wind speeds varying with height. That is why AW posted just a couple of days ago on dynamiting some to salvage spare parts to patch others up.

When we crunched corrected EIA numbers using then wind ERCOT penetration (~10%) for the extra transmission costs, CCGT had an LCOE of ~$57/MWh while onshore wind was ~$147/MWh. About 2.5x. Now if offshore is 3.7x onshore, then it is over 9x hopelessly uneconomic compared to CCGT—robotic maintenance could never bail it out.

Reply to  Rud Istvan
May 23, 2021 1:58 pm

Thanks. I’d started a list of why this was a concatenation of dumb ideas, but unluckily happened on your much more correct post after I committed mine. Re: your last paragraph, back of envelope calculation IMO development of test system as described would cost more than the cost of all currently deployed wind power combined.

H. D. Hoese
Reply to  dk_
May 23, 2021 2:43 pm

Has anybody asked them if they investigated what it costs to install and maintain even an inshore oil platform and mainland connection? OK, divide it by its four legs. They don’t scrap them immediately after useful life for no reason. There has been lots of oceanographic engineering in the last 6+ decades, do they know about it?

“Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) have numerous applications when it comes to maintaining and repairing turbines out at sea.” This suggests that they haven’t. Last I heard these are good, but didn’t check the link as to how they fly.

Reply to  H. D. Hoese
May 23, 2021 3:53 pm

Agree on claim of AUV applications — most likely the opinion of the author, under strictly imaginary circumstances.

Curious George
Reply to  Rud Istvan
May 23, 2021 4:08 pm

Rud, you are one of my semi-gods. Still, instead of writing
you write
at Climate Etc I posted ‘True Cost of Wind’ (still easily available via the search bar there).”

Reply to  Curious George
May 23, 2021 7:07 pm

Making you actually do some internet research is part of why I am only your demigod. I am often cryptic/lazy, albeit precise.

Richard Page
Reply to  Rud Istvan
May 23, 2021 7:23 pm

It is definitely ignorantly foolish speculation even if you ignore the cost/benefit analysis for the wind farms. We simply do not have this technology and probably won’t have for decades to come. This is speculative science fantasy dressed up to look like scientific research – no basis in reality.

May 23, 2021 11:04 am

In the category of having to destroy it to save it.

Rory Forbes
May 23, 2021 11:09 am

I have an even better “secret” formula to reduce costs …

… stop building the bloody things and use all those materials for something useful. Or better still, leave them unused until we find something we actually need.

John K. Sutherland.
May 23, 2021 11:21 am

2.5 million kilometers of heavy copper conductor! I don’t have to guess what that will do for the price of copper. What a waste, for such an intermittent supply of electricity.

Ray in SC
Reply to  John K. Sutherland.
May 23, 2021 4:23 pm

I’m wondering how, per the first paragraph, they can install undersea cable for $6400 per kilometer.

Reply to  Ray in SC
May 23, 2021 5:40 pm

Yes, the numbers are absurd. From what I have read, it’s more like $1.6 million per km.

I do know from personal experience that you must construct special equipment tailored to your specific project. Submarine copper cables are heavy. You don’t just spool out hundreds of feet of it to drop it down to the ocean’s floor. Depending on the total length of cable you are deploying, without careful engineering, the whole reel of cable would start spooling off uncontrollably. You must have adequate breaking. The weight distribution on the ship would be changing as well.

Add in the typical variables of doing anything in the ocean, and you end up with a very expensive undertaking.

Tim Gorman
Reply to  jtom
May 24, 2021 6:44 am

In a rough sea you can put enough tension on the cable that it snaps under its own weight. Then you have the expensive task of snagging the broken cable on the sea bottom, bringing it to the surface, and splicing it all back together again.

I truly despair today of the lack of knowledge displayed by those advocating for “green” energy production.

Craig from Oz
Reply to  Ray in SC
May 23, 2021 10:43 pm


I don’t even think you can buy a kilometer of cable for that amount.

Steve Z
Reply to  John K. Sutherland.
May 24, 2021 12:30 pm

But a “windfall” for copper-mining companies!

May 23, 2021 11:52 am

As some WUWT wag commented on AW’s dynamiting wind turbines post:
A way to save on wind turbine maintenance:

  1. Build turbines.
  2. Build 100% CCGT backup.
  3. Dynamite turbines.
  4. Run CCGT 24/7.

For extra savings, skip steps 1 and 3.

May 23, 2021 11:53 am

comment imagecomment image

Bruce Cobb
May 23, 2021 12:13 pm

Offshore windfarms; the only thing dumber than land-based windfarms.

May 23, 2021 12:15 pm

Get out of the way hom sap, robots don’t need lunch breaks and they don’t get sick.

They don’t breathe….

Reply to  fretslider
May 23, 2021 12:16 pm

They need batteries 😀

Reply to  fretslider
May 24, 2021 3:32 am

You have to add </sarc> obviously.

English humour, eh. Not everybody gets it.

Richard Page
Reply to  fretslider
May 24, 2021 6:40 am

We need Tom Selleck in ‘Runaway’. Highly prescient film for these times – they really should do a remake quite soon.

May 23, 2021 12:17 pm

Offshore wind will be the dinosaurs of renewables very soon. The next 30% drop in utility scale solar costs will bury them. But that means much more wind power on the East Coast anyway because lobbyists and politicos will make it happen….with your money.

Reply to  ResourceGuy
May 23, 2021 12:30 pm

Who will clean the mess up?

Or will they be left to rot?

Reply to  ResourceGuy
May 23, 2021 5:53 pm

Assume you can capture 100% of the solar energy that hits the ground of a city with a latitude greater than 35 degrees. That means you must consider the changing elevation of the sun as the seasons progress, and subtract out the typical number of hours of cloud coverage. Calculate how much area would be required to power the city.

Wind may be the first dinosaur of renewables, but solar won’t make a dent in most of the US and Europe. (note that I said ‘most’. I do not doubt you can find some locales with enough sun combined with small power requirements for solar to work). It doesn’t matter how cheap solar power is if there isn’t much solar power to be had.

Trying to Play Nice
Reply to  ResourceGuy
May 24, 2021 5:37 am

Why do you think there will be “next 30% drop in utility solar costs”? Is this another mis-application of Moore’s Law, which should really be called Moore’s Observation?

I don’t know about you, but I like to turn on the lights and watch TV at night, not during the day when the sun is out.

Reply to  ResourceGuy
May 24, 2021 7:13 am

I don’t think so: most offshore wind is going in in areas which don’t have good solar (or at least not in the winter, but when there are stronger winds)

May 23, 2021 12:19 pm

Maybe offshore wind will increase the shark population while thinning the bird population and surfers.

B Clarke
May 23, 2021 12:28 pm

Already we can inspect pipe lines cables with autonomous vehicles, thats not a big deal , but can they fix broken foundations /pipes ,unlikely, this sounds to me like a begging bowl to research something they allready know is 40 years away at the least, inspection is completely different to fixing big infrastructure, $$$$$££££££. Please.

Joao Martins
May 23, 2021 12:51 pm

“Human activities, including building renewable energy infrastructure, have affected over 40% of the ocean’s surface…”

I wonder if the embedded intelligence of the Illustrious Professor of Embedded Intelligence enables him to understand the magnitude of “40% of the ocean’s surface” and the veracity of all the biological stuff (facts, indeed!…) he refers to… I guess that embedded intelligence is no match for natural stupidity…

Curious George
Reply to  Joao Martins
May 23, 2021 3:09 pm

Don’t be harsh on the Professor. Surely he can think out of the box. I would never have thought of using robotic submarines to repair a windmill. What comes he with next? Maybe using satellites? I am looking forward to a day when a robot will fix my fridge.

Steve Z
Reply to  Joao Martins
May 24, 2021 12:37 pm

An excellent point! The volume of the oceans is estimated at 1,335 million cubic km, while their surface area is about 362 million square km. That gives an average depth of nearly 3.8 km. How much of that deep sea bottom has even been explored, much less ruined, by humans?

May 23, 2021 12:53 pm

So the imaginary green power supply machines can be maintained by imaginary autonomous robots? The Jetsons never had it this good!

May 23, 2021 1:42 pm

Funny. Green robots don’t pollute.
An unordered list of why this is a failure out the gate:

  • Uses non-existent system technology. Parts may exist, but integration and deployment take immense investment of time x money.
  • Devices cited in the example take all of their manufacture and operational costs from fossil fuels.
  • Devices cited in the example also have lifecycle operational and disposal impacts that are not considered friendly to the environment nor carbon-free
  • Devices cited in the article similar to what are available today are remote-controlled by human operators, with carbon and environmental impacts increasing geometrically with distance.
  • Autonomous experimental devices similar to the examples are unreliable (see self-driving car examples posted over the last week in media and WUWT). The best are prohibitively large for this application.
  • Author assumes professions like lineman and rigger can ever be replaced by human beings. There is no large structure construction automation.
  • Author is not aware that large structures or seaborne devices are almost always demolished or destructively removed from site, or scuttled at sea. An economical, portable, modular, wind turbine assembly, capable of working from a barge or set in the ocean, is farther away than their prophesied end of the earth, by which time it will become obvious that windpower is more economically destructive than combustion of dirty coal, and the earth won’t have ended, afterall.

Short version: count the “coulds” and “mays” in the article. The author is tentatively writing bad fiction without a background in how anything is actually done. An homily for the climate cult, and nonsense to anyone more than a half wit.
I may give the author’s and any cited authotities background a go. I’ve been finding a disturging number of fake engineers among those lately.

Reply to  dk_
May 23, 2021 2:08 pm

See Rud Istvan’s post above. Better informed than mine, and better written.

May 23, 2021 1:51 pm

Robots don’t pollute, how funny.

The author is an engineer(?) in charge of a program (EU >38 MIllion) trying to sell development of such systems through his university professorship. He doesn’t really know how to do much of any of the parts of this, but tries to sell the idea that it can be done, never having actually produced much of anything quite as complex himself.
A head of a department, looking for investment? What could possibly go wrong?
Appears in the Conversation, so we know what it is worth.

May 23, 2021 2:40 pm

What is wrong with building in sensors to continuously monitor the windmill turbine and other components. That provides real time data and reveals how performance changes with time.

Reply to  walt
May 23, 2021 3:59 pm

They do those things. No software can completely control all the aspects of power generation on a single turbine. They are semi-autonomous, but people in operational control centers monitor and make adjustments 24/7. PV solar is a little better, but power conversion at the “entry point” to the grid is under human supervision.
But don’t count on having access to any raw historical performance data. It is unlikely to be public record, no matter how many government fingers are in the pie.

May 23, 2021 2:58 pm

Hilarious! Virtually any subsurface autonomous vehicle worth using was developed for, wait for it… the oil and gas industry. I suspect that O&G use over 90% of the fit-for-purpose AVs on the planet. They lay pipelines, connectors, place seismometers, flatten placement locations, find dropped tools (not pocket hammers mind you), and a huge number of other tasks of great difficulty in depths up to 1500 m, some of them deeper.

Reply to  wsbriggs
May 24, 2021 7:11 am

which is why I laugh when people say x or y renewable technology won’t survive at sea/in a salt water environment: the oil and gas industry already pioneered offshore structures capable or surviving any offshore weather or equipment damage…

The Dark Lord
Reply to  griff
May 24, 2021 1:02 pm

not without maintenance they don’t … but oil rigs easily pay the maintenance costs for themselves via their product … a single oil rig may put out the energy equivalent of 100’s or thousands of windmills … the expensive maintenance of oil rigs doesn’t scale up …

May 23, 2021 3:59 pm

The Climate Alarmists are just beginning to notice that these ‘renewable’ energy sources like wind-turbines and solar panels need a lot of costly maintenance and do not last long without it. As a result they are proposing that absolutely free-of-cost robots will do the work like recycling blades that no one else can yet do, and do it perfectly at no cost. The robots also will need no maintenance according to the Alarmists.
All we have to do is pay for all their nonsense.

May 23, 2021 4:20 pm

And we can have robots turn the blades for us when the wind doesn’t blow.

Al Kour
Reply to  Doonman
May 24, 2021 8:35 pm

And hold a candle over solar panels when Sun doesn’t shine.

May 23, 2021 5:16 pm

You start with a robot in charge of policy–don’t forget to put sunglasses on it and don’t let it run up staircases or say much.

Reply to  ResourceGuy
May 23, 2021 7:53 pm

C’mon MAN!

May 23, 2021 6:02 pm

Maybe the maintenance robots will be based on the same AI technology as the Tesla self-driving cars.

May 23, 2021 9:18 pm

Biden approves robots having jobs as long as they join the union and vote democratic.

Matthew Sykes
May 23, 2021 11:28 pm

I disagree completely with this.

Rocks act as reefs and provide fish with shelter. It is fishermen who dont like them.

Rocks, and under water pylons do not cause algal blooms. That is complete garbage.

“To lay and secure these cables against ocean currents ” Also complete garbage. We laid cables from Cornwall all over the world, they dont have to be buried and the only currents are close to headlands.

“unprecedented level of damage to the world’s oceans” he sounds like an alarmist.

And then he promotes sonar using autonomous RVs that have been blamed for interfering with whales and dolphins and causing strandings.

This entire article has as much depth and thought to it as any alarmist piece. I am surprised you ran it WUWT, it is not up to your usual standards.

Reply to  Matthew Sykes
May 24, 2021 7:09 am

Indeed… here’s an article ‘Offshore wind farms create ‘reef effect’ perfect for marine wildlife – especially seals’ supporting your point.

Offshore wind farms create ‘reef effect’ perfect for marine wildlife – especially seals | The Independent | The Independent

Steve Z
Reply to  griff
May 24, 2021 12:40 pm

So do offshore oil-drilling rigs.

Matthew Sykes
Reply to  Steve Z
May 24, 2021 11:31 pm

It is why dumping old cars and ships on the seabed is great for fish, anything to break up the sandy plain that is often the sea bed with shelter is good for wildlife.

Steve Z
May 24, 2021 12:28 pm

According to the article, it costs 250,000 pounds sterling a day to transport turbine inspectors to an offshore wind farm and back–that comes out to more than 90 million pounds per year! How much is that per kilowatt-hour? So much for “free” wind energy!

The Dark Lord
May 24, 2021 1:15 pm

yeah but Will Smith still won’t trust them …

May 25, 2021 9:56 pm

Joe Biden and Gavin Newsom have identified 2 locations for wind farms off California shores – Morro Bay and Mendocino.
Now why would they pick 2 places that are 100s of miles away from population centers that will be using the majority of that energy. Politics maybe?

jeff corbin
May 26, 2021 11:12 am

This is crazy. All people need is a good battery so they can generate. store and distribute their own electricity. With a modern high efficiency battery, there would be no need for giant infrastructure and tax boondoggles. Everything gets decentralized. People could generate electricity using oil or natural gas through micro turbines spinning generators while heating water and heating the house, surplus power gets stored and distributed on demand. The excess heat goes to a TEG thermal exchange and with solar panels on the roof, the wasteful, inefficient, colluded, expensive grid becomes obsolete and local communities flower.

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