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2012 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on

Intelligent Robots and Systems

October 7-12, 2012. Vilamoura, Algarve, Portugal

Snake-like Robot Driven by Decentralized Control Scheme for

Scaffold-based Locomotion
Takahide Sato, Takeshi Kano, Ryo Kobayashi, and Akio Ishiguro

Abstract— Snakes actively utilize terrain irregularities and

attain propulsion force by pushing their bodies against scaffolds.
The objective of this study is to understand the mechanism
underlying this locomotion on the basis of a synthetic approach.
Our previous control scheme of a snake-like robot, in which
the curvature derivative control method is combined with a
reflexive mechanism using local pressures on the body wall,
could not fully reproduce innate behavior of real snakes. In this
study, we improve our previous control scheme. We show that
the locomotion of a simulated robot with the improved control
scheme is surprisingly in good agreement with the locomotion
of a real snake. We also present a physical robot that we are
currently developing.
I. Introduction
There is a crucial difference between robots and animals:
most robots are designed to work in predefined environments, Fig. 1. Scaffold-based locomotion of real snake.
and uncertainties such as terrain irregularities often reduce
these robots can only adapt to a few environments. Therefore,
their functionality. Engineers have, to date, treated these
the mechanism of the scaffold-based locomotion remains
uncertainties as disturbances and have focused on how to
cope with them. In contrast, animals do not lose their
Autonomous decentralized control mechanisms, in which
functionality even under unstructured and unpredictable real-
the coordination of simple individual components yields non-
world constraints, and they adapt to various environments
trivial macroscopic behavior or functionalities, could be the
in real time. This ability has been honed by evolutionary
key to understanding scaffold-based locomotion. Centralized
selection pressure, and it is likely that there is an inge-
control approaches suffer from a serious problem in that the
nious underlying mechanism. Clarifying this mechanism will
computational resources required for controlling the body
bridge the gap between robots and animals and will help
increase considerably as the number of bodily degrees of
develop robots that work well in undefined environments.
freedom increases. In contrast, autonomous decentralized
Snakes are a suitable model for investigating these mech-
control mechanisms are expected to produce highly adaptive
anisms. For snakes, irregularities in the environment are in
and resilient locomotion through the coordination of many
fact advantageous in their locomotion: snakes actively utilize
body points, with each having several degrees of freedom
terrain irregularities and produce an effective propulsion
[10-12]. In fact, autonomous decentralized control mech-
force by pushing their body against the scaffolds that they
anisms have been discovered in several living organisms,
encounter (Fig. 1; hereafter, we refer to this locomotion
such as biochemical oscillators in true slime molds [13] and
as “scaffold-based locomotion”) [1-4]. To date, biological
central pattern generators (CPGs) in lampreys, leeches, and
studies on snake locomotion have provided some data about
crayfishes [14-16].
the spatiotemporal dynamics of body movement and mus-
cular activities in various environments [2-4]. A robotic The objective of this study is to clarify the autonomous
approach has also been employed to clarify the locomotion decentralized control mechanism of scaffold-based locomo-
mechanism as well as to exploit it for practical applications. tion on the basis of a synthetic approach. We have recently
Thus far, inspired by the pioneering work done by Hirose proposed a simple decentralized control scheme [17]. In
[5], various types of snake-like robots have been developed this scheme, we combined the curvature derivative control
to reproduce the scaffold-based locomotion [6-9]; however, method [18] with a reflexive mechanism in which the local
pressure detected at a certain point of the body wall is
T. Sato T. Kano, and A. Ishiguro are with Research Institute of Elec- fed back to the muscles on the contralateral-cranial and
trical Communication, Tohoku University, 2-1-1 Katahira, Aoba-ku, Sendai ipsilateral-caudal side simultaneously. Liljebäck et al. have
980-8577, Japan {sato,tkano,ishiguro}
R. Kobayashi is with the Department of Mathematical and Life proposed a similar mechanism at the same time as us [19].
Sciences, Hiroshima University, Higashi Hiroshima 739-8526, Japan Although these control schemes were suggestive for under- standing the mechanism of the scaffold-based locomotion,
A. Ishiguro and R. Kobayashi are also with the Japan Science and
Technology Agency, CREST, Sanban-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 102-0075, they could still not fully reproduce innate behavior of real
Japan snakes. In this study, we developed an improved control

978-1-4673-1736-8/12/S31.00 ©2012 IEEE 132

Head! Top view! tail ends, respectively. Hereafter, we denote the derivative
with respect to s by the prime symbol ( 0 ). The following
Universal joint! conditions are assumed:
µt (i) The backbone is not stretchable.
i −1 (ii) The lateral velocity is zero.
i (iii) There is no longitudinal friction.
µn i +1 Cross section!
Spine! Under these assumptions, the equation of motion for an
Elastic material! entire body is given by
∫ L
: Shear strain sensor! Mα = κτ0 ds, (1)
Tail! : Vertical strain sensor!
where M is the total mass of the body; α ≡ α(t), the longi-
Fig. 2. Design of mechanical system in our previous work [17]. The tudinal acceleration; κ ≡ κ(s, t), the curvature; and τ ≡ τ(s, t),
musculoskeletal structure is surrounded by an elastic material. Strain sensors the bending moment that is actively generated. The partial
are distributed on both sides and on the bottom of the elastic material. integration of (1) under the assumption of τ(0, t) = τ(L, t) = 0
scheme by extending our previous scheme, and we discuss yields
∫ L
its advantages on the basis of a continuum model. We show
that the locomotion of a simulated robot with the improved Mα = − κ0 τds. (2)
control scheme is surprisingly in good agreement with the
For a given α, the optimal bending
∫ L moment that minimizes
locomotion of a real snake. Furthermore, we show a physical
robot now developing. the quadratic cost function τ2 ds is derived using the
The remainder of this paper is organized as follows. In Lagrange multiplier method as follows:
section II, we briefly review the previously reported related

works. In section III, we present the improved autonomous τ∗ = − ∫ L · κ0 . (3)
decentralized control scheme of a snake-like robot, and κ02 ds
discuss its advantage on the basis of a continuum model. In 0
section IV, we show through simulations that the improved Thus, a snake can propel efficiently when it generates bend-
control scheme reproduces the scaffold-based locomotion of ing moment proportional to the curvature derivative of the
real snakes surprisingly well. In section V, we present the body curve.
physical robot that we are currently developing. Finally, the This theoretical result can be approximated to a rigid
conclusions and future works are provided in section VI. link model by the assignment −κ0 (s, t) → (φi−1 (t) − φi (t))/∆s,
where φi (t) is the ith joint angle at time t and ∆s, the
II. Related works
link length. Then, the joint torque on the ith joint, τi (t), is
Herein, we briefly review previously reported works that designed as
are closely related to this study.
τi (t) = K(φi−1 (t) − φi (t)), (4)
A. Shift control and lateral-inhibition control
where K is the control gain that governs longitudinal acceler-
Hirose proposed a control scheme of snake-like robot, ation. Equation (4) simply describes the proportional control
called shift control [5]. In this control scheme, creeping mo- of the ith joint whose reference is the i − 1th joint angle. This
tion is generated by propagating the reference angle for each decentralized control scheme is called “curvature derivative
joint posteriorly along the body. In order to produce more control.”
adaptive behavior, he also implemented lateral-inhibition
control mechanism where tactile sensory information de- C. Our previous work
tected on both sides of the body is fed back into the joint We proposed an autonomous decentralized control scheme
angles so as to produce evasive reaction. He showed that for the scaffold-based locomotion of a soft-bodied snake-like
the robot with the proposed control scheme could move in robot [17]. The design of the mechanical system is shown
several types of environments. However, its adaptability was in Fig. 2. Antagonistic muscles are aligned on both sides of
still questionable, since he did not perform experiments on the backbone, which is surrounded by an elastic material.
highly unstructured environments. Each muscle is modeled using a spring, called as a real-time
tunable spring (RTS), whose natural length can be arbitrarily
B. Curvature derivative control changed [10].
Date and Takita theoretically analyzed snake locomotion The natural length of each RTS is determined according to
on the basis of a three-dimensional continuum model [18]. the following rules (mathematical descriptions of these rules
Here we present their model for the case of two-dimensional are provided in [17]):
locomotion. In this model, the backbone is described by a Rule 1:The natural length of an RTS decreases/increases
smooth curve of zero thickness that is parametrized by its arc when the real length of the RTS on its ipsilateral-
length s ∈ [0, L], where s = 0 and s = L denote the head and cranial side decreases/increases.

Head ! i+1
Head ! i
propulsion! Head!

Large i
curvature i+1 Tail!

derivative! i
i−1 µb
µf µ
Fig. 4. Model of body structure. Masses are represented by filled circles.
Black and red lines indicate parallel combination of a rigid spring and a
damper and that of an RTS and a damper, respectively. Blue spirals indicate
Tail ! torsional springs. The frictional coefficient in the forward direction, µ f , is
Tail ! smaller than that in the lateral and backward directions, denoted by µn and
µb , respectively.
(a)! (b)!
Fig. 3. Propulsion mechanism in our previous control scheme [17]. this purpose, we consider a simple two-dimensional mus-
(a) When a local pressure is detected at the contact point between the
body and a peg (orange arrow), muscles on the contralateral-cranial and
culoskeletal model described by a mass-spring-damper sys-
ipsilateral-caudal side contract simultaneously (red lines). (b) Then, the tem as shown in Fig. 4. The backbone consists of masses
curvature derivative of the body curve is produced, which generates effective connected one-dimensionally via rigid springs and dampers.
propulsion force.
A torsional spring is embedded in each of these masses,
Rule 2:When the body detects a local pressure at a certain which represents the anatomical constraint of each backbone
point on its surface, the natural lengths of the RTSs joint. Masses that represent the body walls on both sides are
on its contralateral-cranial and ipsilateral-caudal connected to adjacent backbone masses via rigid springs and
side decrease simultaneously. dampers. Each muscle aligned along the backbone is mod-
eled by the parallel combination of a damper and an RTS.
Here Rule 1 is equivalent to curvature derivative control. The RTSs have passive as well as active mechanical features;
Rule 2 contributes to the realization of the scaffold-based lo- hence, they are ideal for reproducing the characteristics of
comotion: For example, suppose that the body makes contact real muscles. Forces generated by RTSs on both sides of each
with a peg as shown in Fig. 3(a). Then, the natural lengths joint act antagonistically, leading to bending of the body. The
of the RTSs on the contralateral-cranial and ipsilateral- weight of each mass and the spring constant of each RTS on
caudal side of the contact point decrease. Consequently, the the ith segment, mi and ki , respectively, are modeled as mi =
curvature derivative of the body curve increases, which in m0 (1 − m max[i − mth , 0]) and ki = k0 (1 − k max[i − kth , 0]),
turn enhances the effect of curvature derivative control (see respectively, where m0 , mth , m , k0 , kth , and k are positive
Fig. 3(b)). Thus, the body propels effectively by exploiting constants, considering the weight and force balances of real
the peg. snakes.
We investigated the validity of our control scheme through The ground frictional force acts on the masses of the body
a simulation, and we showed that the simulated robot propels wall. Here, we ignored the ground frictional force for nd
effectively by exploiting scaffolds. However, our control segments from the head because real snakes lift their heads
scheme had a problem in that scaffold-based locomotion was to explore the direction of motion. The friction is modeled
successfully realized only in a few specific environments. so that the coefficient of Coulomb friction in the forward
In fact, our simulations showed that the locomotion often direction, µ f , is smaller than those in the lateral and the
collapses when the environment, e.g., alignment of pegs, is backward directions, denoted by µn and µb , respectively.
arbitrarily changed. Here we assume that µ f /µn and µ f /µb are not extremely
Liljebäck et al. proposed a similar control scheme [19] in smaller than unity on the basis of biological findings [20],
which they introduced a local reflexive mechanism through whereas excessive anisotropy in the ground friction has been
which opposing torques are generated on both the cranial and assumed in several previous studies using wheeled robots
the caudal joints of the contact point, which is essentially [5,11,18].
the same as Rule 2 in our control scheme. They combined
The effect of terrain irregularities on the snake’s body
this scheme with curvature derivative control with finite time
is modeled by using a potential Φ(r) that represents the
delay. Thus, they might have encountered a problem similar
altitude of the ground at position r; each body mass is
to ours.
subject to a force proportional to the gradient of the potential,
−mi g∇Φ(rmass ), where rmass represents the position of the
III. Improved control scheme
mass and g, the gravitational acceleration. By introducing
A. Model this potential, we can describe the effect of terrain irregu-
As described above, previous control schemes could not larities in a simple manner even though the model is two-
fully reproduce the scaffold-based locomotion of real snakes. dimensional.
Here we propose an improved autonomous decentralized The natural lengths of the RTSs are controlled in a
control scheme by extending our previous scheme. For decentralized manner except for the control of the direction

of motion at the head. Biological studies have shown that Head!
snakes have muscle spindles that react to muscle stretching
[21] and mechanosensitive nerve fibers on their skin [22],
and we designed the natural lengths of the RTSs using this
local sensory information. The natural lengths of the RTSs
that connect the ith and i + 1th masses on the right- and left-
hand sides, l¯i+1/2,r and l¯i+1/2,l , respectively, are modeled as

i+n f
l¯i+1/2,r = hr − c tanh(β f j,l ), (5)

i+n f
l¯i+1/2,l = hl − c tanh(β f j,r ), (6)
Tail! Tail!
for i ≤ nc , and
(a)! (b)!

i+n f
Fig. 5. (a) Areas of muscle contractions when the body makes contact with
l¯i+1/2,r = li−1/2,r − c tanh(β f j,l ), (7) a peg near an inflection point of the body curve. The blue and purple double-
j=i+1 headed arrows indicate the areas where RTSs contract due to curvature
derivative control, and the red double-headed arrow indicates the area where

i+n f
RTSs contract due to the local pressure reflex. The orange arrow indicates
l¯i+1/2,l = li−1/2,l − c tanh(β f j,r ), (8) the contact force. Owing to the RTS contractions, the cranial part of the
j=i+1 contact point is pushed against the peg, as shown in (b).
for i > nc , where nc is the number of segments to which the 2) The body must produce sufficient propulsion force.
signal from the higher center is applied; hr and hl denote the
inputs from the higher center, which determine the direction Considering point 1), the RTSs on the contralateral side
of motion; and li−1/2,r and li−1/2,l denote the real lengths of the contact point between the body and the peg con-
of the RTSs that connect the i − 1th and ith masses on the tract owing to curvature derivative control (blue double-
right and left sides, respectively. Both c and β are positive headed arrow) and push the body against the peg. Then,
constants, and fi,r and fi,l are the local pressures detected the local pressure reflex causes the RTSs to contract on
on the body wall on the right- and left-hand sides of the ith the contralateral-cranial segments (red double-headed arrow).
segment, respectively, and n f is the number of segments to This contraction further pushes the cranial part of the body
which the local sensory signal on the body wall is fed back. against the peg (Fig. 5(b)), in turn increasing the effect of
The first terms on the right-hand side in (7) and (8) have the local pressure reflex. On the other hand, the RTSs on
the same effect as Rule 1 in our previous work (see section the ipsilateral-caudal side of the contact point contract owing
IIB), which is equivalent to curvature derivative control. On to curvature derivative control (purple double-headed arrow).
the other hand, the second terms on the right-hand side This contraction makes the caudal segments twist around the
in (5)-(8) represent the reflex using the local pressure on peg, and thus, the body is able to maintain contact with the
the body wall (hereafter, local pressure reflex). This local peg.
reflexive mechanism works by contracting the muscles on Next, we consider point 2). To understand how the pro-
the contralateral-cranial side of the contact point between posed reflexive mechanism contributes to the propulsion
the body and a scaffold (red double-headed arrow in Fig. of the body in the longitudinal direction, the continuum
5(a)). model presented in section IIA provides useful insights. In
Here it should be noted that the local pressure is not fed the continuum model, the propulsion force of the body is
back into the ipsilateral-caudal side of the contact point. This given by the integral of κτ0 with regard to s (see (1)). This
is a crucial defference from our previous control scheme [17] analytical result is not strictly correct in the present case
and the control scheme developed by Liljebäck et al. [19]. because the assumption that lateral slippage does not occur
The advantage of the present control scheme is discussed in (assumption (ii) in section IIA) no longer holds in scaffold-
the next subsection. based locomotion; however, it is expected to be roughly
correct when the body does not slip considerably. Now,
B. Mechanism of scaffold exploitation let our proposed model (Fig. 4) be approximated by the
The proposed local reflexive mechanisms can be used to continuum model and the bending moment τ be divided into
exploit scaffolds in the following manner: Suppose that the that generated by the curvature derivative control τc and that
body makes contact with a peg near the inflection point of generated by the local pressure reflex τ p . Fig. 6(a) shows the
the body curve, as shown in Fig. 5(a). For the body to qualitative profiles of κ, τc , and τ p in the situation illustrated
propel forward by exploiting this peg, the following two in Fig. 5(a). We now focus on the propulsion force generated
requirements should be satisfied: by the local pressure reflex, given by the integral of κτ0p with
1) The body must maintain contact with the peg. regard to s. We find that τ0p is positive at the part cranial

A! B! Parameter values employed in the simulations.

τ p (s) parameter value

N 70
nc 5
τ c (s) nd 3
s nf 3
Head! Tail! β 5.0
c 0.27
κ (s) Natural length of rigid springs
Spring constant of rigid springs
Spring constant of torsional springs 100.0
(a)! Damping coefficient 60.0
m0 0.12
mth 30
m 0.01
k0 1200
A! B! C! kth 30
k 0.01
µf 2.3
µb 6.9
µn 6.9
Maximum time step 65000
s x coordinate of the start line 0
Head! x coordinate of the goal line 150
τ c (s) Tail!
κ (s) when the snake head reached the goal line or when the
τ p (s) time step exceeded the maximum time step allowed for the
(b)! experiment, and three trials were conducted. The parameter
Fig. 6. Qualitative profiles of κ(s) (orange lines), τc (s) (blue lines), and values employed in the simulations are listed in Table I.
τ p (s) (red lines) when (a) the improved control scheme and (b) the previous Figs. 7(b) and 8(b) show photographs of the simulated
control scheme are implemented. Black arrows indicate the contact point
between the body and a peg.
locomotion and the corresponding locomotion trajectory,
respectively. The simulated snake propels effectively using
to the contact point where κ is large (near point A in Fig. the pegs and subtle terrain irregularities (Fig. 7(b)), and the
6(a)), whereas it is negative at the contact point where κ is trajectory shows that each point along the body follows the
nearly zero (near point B in Fig. 6(a)); thus, the integral of path established by the head (Fig. 8(b)). These results are
κτ0p with regard to s becomes positive, which means that the in good agreement with the experimental results using a
local pressure reflex enhances the propulsion force produced real snake (Figs. 7(a) and 8(a)). A magnified photograph
by curvature derivative control. of the simulated snake (Fig. 9(b)) shows that the snake
The advantage of the proposed control scheme over the generates forces on the contralateral, ipsilateral-cranial, and
previous control schemes [17,19] can be also explained using ipsilateral-caudal sides of the contact point; this is also in
the continuum model. Fig. 6(b) shows the qualitative profiles good agreement with the behavior of a real snake (Fig. 9(a))
of κ(s), τc (s), and τ p (s) when the previous control scheme [4].
is implemented. Although τ0p (s) is positive at the cranial To evaluate the effects of the proposed control scheme,
part of the contact point where κ(s) is positive (near point we measured the mean velocity of the center of mass, V, the
A in Fig. 6(b)), it is also positive at the caudal part of time average of the total force generated by the RTSs, Ftotal ,
the contact point where κ(s) is negative (near point C in and the ratio between these two, that is, Ftotal /V. The ratio
Fig. 6(b)). This fact suggests that feedback to the caudal Ftotal /V is a suitable index for locomotion efficiency because
side deteriorates rather than enhances the propulsion of the it takes a small value when the simulated snake moves fast
body, and thus, this reflexive mechanism is not necessary for using small actuation forces. Fig. 10 shows the results for
effective exploitation of scaffolds. the cases in which the improved control scheme and our
previous control [17] scheme are used for the control of
IV. Simulation the RTS natural lengths, respectively. It is clear that V is
larger and Ftotal is smaller, and as a consequence, Ftotal /V
We have conducted simulations to validate our control is significantly smaller, in the case of the improved control
scheme. To focus specifically on the autonomous decentral- scheme than in the case with the previous one. This result
ized control mechanism of locomotion in our simulations, suggests that the improved control scheme is advantageous
the inputs from the higher center, hr and hl , were entered for realizing scaffold-based locomotion.
manually via the keyboard rather than being mathematically
formulated. Six participants first watched a movie of real V. Robot
snake locomotion, and then practiced the keyboard operation. We are currently developing a physical snake-like robot
Each participant operated the keyboard so that the simulated to validate our control scheme in the real world. Overview
snake propels by exploiting scaffolds. Each trial finished of CAD image of the robot is shown in Fig. 11. The

(a)! (b)! (a)! (b)!
Fig. 8. (a) Trajectory of real snake locomotion. The body curves (solid
Fig. 7. (a) Locomotion of a real snake (Elaphe climacophora) on an curves) represent the position of the body after a time interval of 2 s. The
upslope (7.7o ) with subtle terrain irregularities (red arrow) and pegs (40mm blue line indicates subtle terrain irregularity. (b) Trajectory of locomotion
in diameter). The snake locomotes by actively utilizing the subtle terrain in the simulation. Blue, green, red, and purple curves indicate positions
irregularities and pegs. (Photographs taken at the Japan Snake Institute.) (b) of the simulated snake at time steps of 45000, 50000, 55000, and 60000,
Photographs of the simulated locomotion. The red cylinders and black areas respectively, and the plus symbols indicate the center of mass for each
represent pegs and subtle terrain irregularities, respectively. The color of the position. Empty arrows indicate the direction of motion.
RTSs turns from light blue to red when they generate forces. Yellow bars
indicate the magnitudes of fi,r and fi,l . Empty arrows indicate the direction
of motion.
robot consists of multiple identical body segments that are
concatenated one dimensionally. Fig. 12 shows the detailed
structure of each segment. The size of each segment is 14
mm (length) × 58 mm (width) × 54 mm (height). A motor
is mounted on each segment, which is connected to the
adjacent segment not directly but indirectly via a silicone
rubber. Owing to this compliant mechanical structure, the (a)! (b)!
joint can be passively bent to some extent; thus, the actual Fig. 9. (a) Schematic drawing of the muscle activity of a real snake
pushing against one of several pegs with which it is in contact. The thick
joint angle can slightly deviate from the motor angle. This line indicates the muscle activity, and the thin lines indicate the anterior
joint angle is measured by a rotary potentiometer. A pressure tendons of the active muscles. (b) Magnified view of the boxed area in Fig.
sensor and a silicone rubber are embedded on each side of 7(b). Empty arrows indicate the direction of motion.
the segment, which are covered by a body wall consisting of
a hard material. When the body wall is pushed by objects, derivative control. The second terms on the right hand side
e.g., pegs, the sensor detects a pressure. in (9) and (10) express the local pressure reflex; these terms
Although the RTSs on both sides of the body are used as work such that the cranial joints bend toward right/left
actuators in the mass-spring-damper model (see section III), when the body detects local pressure on its left/right side,
we use one motor for driving each joint for ease of hard- equivalent to the reflexive mechanism proposed in section
ware implementation. Thus, we need to modify the proposed III.
VI. Conclusion
control scheme ((5)-(8)) with keeping its essence. The motor
We aimed to clarify the autonomous decentralized con-
angle of the ith joint φ̄i (right is taken as positive) is designed
trol mechanism of scaffold-based snake locomotion on the

i+n f basis of a synthetic approach. Although we had previously
φ̄i = φh + c {tanh(β f j,l ) − tanh(β f j,r )}, (9) proposed an autonomous decentralized control scheme for
j=i+1 scaffold-based locomotion, it could not fully reproduce the
for i ≤ nc , and innate behavior of real snakes. In this study, we developed an

i+n f improved control scheme by extending our previous scheme,
φ̄i = φi−1 + c {tanh(β f j,l ) − tanh(β f j,r )}, (10) and we discussed the advantages of the improved control
j=i+1 scheme using a continuum model. Through simulations, we
for i > nc , where φh is the input from the robot controller. The showed that the improved scheme reproduces the scaffold-
first term on the right hand side in (10) expresses curvature based locomotion of real snakes surprisingly well. We also

V , Ftotal , Ftotal /V (a.u.)
Ftotal /V

Improved control Previous control
scheme! scheme!
Fig. 10. Mean locomotion velocity, V, time average of the total force Fig. 12. Detailed structure of each segment.
generated by the RTSs, Ftotal , and ratio between these two, Ftotal /V, when
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