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Roger Clarke's 'Drones and Public Safety'

Drones' Challenges to Public Safety

For a Presentation to the Unmanned Aerial Systems Conference, 17 February 2014, Adelaide

Rough Draft of 6 February 2014

Roger Clarke **

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Despite the difficulties inherent in flight and the additional threats arising from airspace congestion, the aviation industry has a remarkable safety record. As any technology matures, corners are cut and more risks are taken. For a century, these temptations have been largely resisted or controlled. But now pilotless aircraft are proliferating, which lack many of the features that have underpinned the high safety levels. This presentation catalogues the challenges that the epidemic of drones present to air safety and considers the extent to which current regulatory frameworks appear to be able to cope, and the scope for regulatory reforms.


1. Introduction

The last decade has seen developments in the technology and economics of remotely-piloted aircraft that mirror the frantic activity a century earlier when manned flight began in earnest. Despite the dangers inherent in their operation, a combination of market-driven, regulatory and technological factors resulted in aircraft becoming a remarkably safe form of transport. But will those safety standards be sustained as pilots migrate from cockpit to ground-station?

A project was conducted during the second half of 2013 which resulted in a series of papers on the nature of unmanned aircraft (Clarke 2014a, 2014b), and the regulation of their impacts on public safety (Clarke & Bennett Moses 2014), and on behavioural privacy (Clarke 2014c). This paper draws on the outcomes of that project, in order to identify specific challenges that drones present to public safety. It commences by clarifying the nature of the devices whose impacts are to be considered, and the current regulatory frameworks to which they are subject. A set of risks to public safety that arise from these devices are then described, enabling an assessment of the prospects for regulatory form to address the problems.

2. A Drone by Any Other Name

For two reasons, the devices in question are referred to throughout this paper as 'drones'. The first reason is that the term has been in use for 80 years, having been coined by US Navy officers in 1935, as a play on the name of a UK remotely-controlled target aircraft called 'Queen Bee'.

The second reason this paper uses 'drone' is to avoid the battle over acronyms that has emerged in recent years. A wide array of descriptive terms have been applied, including:

The 'V' suffix limits the focus to the device, whereas the 'S' suffix has the advantage of also encompassing the remote pilot's local equipment and any further infrastructure on which the drones depends. The terms RPA and RPAS are commonly-used in Europe, and have been adopted by the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), whereas the terms UAV and UAS are widely used in the USA. 'RP' nominally excludes fully-autonomous drones, whereas 'U' nominally encompasses them. In Australia, the authoritative document of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority uses the term 'UAV' (CASA 1998a); but its recent informal comments follow ICAO and use 'RPA' and 'RPAS' (CASA 2013).

The analysis of the literature in Clarke (2014a) identified four elements that are definitional of a drone:

Attributes that fall short of being definitional factors include size and weight, the nature of the airframe and propulsion, the particular functions performed, the degree of remoteness of control, the degree of autonomy, and the nature of the operating organisation.

3. The Current Regulatory Framework

The context for regulation within individual countries is set by the Convention on International Civil Aviation, also called the Chicago Convention. A UN organisation, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), headquartered in Montreal, has the responsibility to "promote the safe and orderly development of international civil aviation throughout the world".

The Convention leaves the regulation of pilotless aircraft specifically to national laws. In particular, it contains the following provision: "No aircraft capable of being flown without a pilot shall be flown without a pilot over the territory of a contracting State without special authorization by that State and in accordance with the terms of such authorization. Each contracting State undertakes to insure that the flight of such aircraft without a pilot in regions open to civil aircraft shall be so controlled as to obviate danger to civil aircraft" (Article 8).

The focus of aviation regulation has always been on piloted aircraft, above a given size and generally operating above a given height and in sectors adjacent to airports. Other aircraft, such as what are commonly termed 'model aircraft', are subject to national laws. The lack of drone-specific rules at the international level is likely due to the limited civilian use of pilotless aircraft during the decades following ICAO's establishment. The first steps to establish a framework for RPA/RPAS were taken as long ago as 2005 (ICAO 2006), but little appears to have occurred since, with some vague Rules amended but not yet current because the necessary Standards are yet to be developed and promulgated. A key factor appears to be be the slow speed of the organisation's (necessarily) cumbersome multilateral processes. Further details are provided in Clarke & Bennett Moses (2014).

Each country is responsible for aircraft safety within its own international borders, in almost all cases within the context set by ICAO. In Australia, the primary legislative instruments are the Air Navigation Act and Air Navigation Regulations, and the primary regulatory agency is the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA).

CASA is understood to have been the first national agency to issue operational regulations for drones, as CASR Regulation 101-1 (CASA 1998a, applicable since 2002). A loose regulatory framework also exists for small, recreational devices, commonly referred to as 'model aircraft', in the form of CASR-101-3 (CASA 1998b).

Briefly, and of necessity not quite accurately:

The currently-public safety analysis published by CASA is very limited. Moreover, the tenor of some of CASA's statements may be disturbing to those who thought that the organisation was responsible for air safety: "There is no point in CASA writing regulations that can't be enforced. Therefore, CASA is in the process of writing some rules it can control" (CASA 2013). A further concern is the extent to which regulatory capture may have occurred: "Pending consultation with industry, we are looking at options to re-categorise all RPAs into weight classes, to make it less onerous for operators but still operate within a safe regulatory environment". It is of course essential that consultations with industry take place, but it is of concern firstly that those consultations do not extend to other stakeholders, and secondly that the driving factor appears to be convenience to the industry, with safety as a constraint rather than an objective.

4. Risk Assessment and Risk Management

This paper's thesis is that drones smaller than 150kg are sufficiently different from aircraft that the existing regulatory framework will not sustain the same aviation safety levels that have been achieved during the industry's first century. But an assertion of that nature requires careful examination.

A light-handed regime has worked satisfactorily for model aircraft, so why would such a scheme not be sufficient for drones? One reason is that there has been a substantial increase in the capabilities of drones, and particularly in their payloads and above all in their capacity to carry cameras. In combination with much lower entry-points - in terms of costs, expertise and effort - their attractiveness to consumers has substantially increased, and they have become useful for business and government as well. This has resulted in them quickly moving outside the relatively disciplined context of model aircraft clubs and into the street mentality of remote-controlled model cars.

Another question is why a change in the location of a vehicle's driver, enabling smaller aircraft, would shift the ground on which existing and successful laws, policies, standards and practices are based. The primary analytical approach that could provide answers to that question is Technology Assessment. This is "a scientific, interactive and communicative process, which aims to contribute to the formation of public and political opinion on societal aspects of science and technology" (EPTA). The appropriate vehicle for TA is an office of a national parliament. However, TAs for drones are conspicuous by their absence. No formal TA bodies exist in the USA or Australia, and of the 14 members of European Parliamentary Technology Assessment (EPTA), only the Norwegian Board of Technology has published anything at all (Moe 2013), and the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) has just commenced a short study.

In some jurisdictions, notably those of the UK and Australia, Law Reform Commissions conduct studies, although constrained by the legal perspective rather than extending to the breadth of TA. The only instance found to date in which drones have attracted any meaningful consideration is in the current reference before the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) on Serious Invasions of Privacy, where 'Regulating aerial surveillance' is one of 28 questions listed in the Issues Paper.

An alternative approach is a Risk Assessment. This is commonly undertaken by an organisation for its own benefit. However, it is capable of being generalised, in order to reflect the wider public interest. A Risk Assessment approach identifies assets, and values inherent in them from the perspective of a defined set of stakeholders, identifies threats to those values, vulnerabilities on which the threats may impinge, existing safeguards, and major residual risks. For a 'public interest risk assessment', the assets comprise people and property, and the values are the life and wellbeing of people and the integrity and financial value of assets. Risk assessment lays the foundation for the risk management process, during which additional safeguards and refinements to existing safeguards can be devised and implemented.

However, no broad risk assessments of such kinds have been located. The following section is a contribution to the missing discussion.

5. Drones' Challenges to Public Safety

In the absence of published assessments by parliamentary offices or air safety authorities, this section draws on the outcomes of a research project conducted during the second half of 2013 in order to identify key threat-vulnerability combinations. The set of challenges that has been identified is as follows:

  1. Airworthiness under Normal Conditions
  2. Airworthiness under Challenging Conditions
  3. Suitability for the Task
  4. Noticeability and Detectability
  5. Pilot Performance
  6. Airspace Congestion
  7. Electronic Congestion
  8. Quality Assurance
  9. Weaponisation
  10. Loss of Human Control

5.1 Airworthiness under Normal Conditions

The following extract from Clarke (2014a) outlines the fundamental issue of a drone's ability to achieve and sustain safe flight: "Each aircraft has an operating envelope, defined in terms of its attitude, inside of which it is flyable, and outside of which it is unstable and probably unrecoverable. If the aircraft's attitude shifts outside its envelope, it suffers loss of control by the human or auto-pilot. Safe operation of a drone is therefore dependent on the aircraft's attitude being kept within its operating envelope, by conducting manoeuvres within the envelope, and by taking corrective action when the aircraft's attitude is changed by external factors, referred to as upset-conditions, such as a wind-gust or turbulence.

"Key attributes that enable drone survival are:

In practice, devices generally involve some degree of autonomous operation, if only at the level of stabilisation controls. Remote human control depends on the requirements that:

Several categories of remote control need to be distinguished:

Generally, it might be expected that drone models that lacked basic airworthiness would quickly gain a bad reputation among purchasers and disappear from the market. On the other hand, it may take time for the information to become available, or the problem may be one arising from manufacture rather than design and hence may not afflict all instances of the product, or it may arise from cost-cutting some time into the life of the model. In the meantime, risks to public safety exist.

5.2 Airworthiness under Challenging Conditions

Circumstances arise which are likely to take a drone to the edge of, or beyond, its operational envelope. Such circumstances may arise unpredictably, and suddenly. For example:

Design features to provide safeguards against such threats require considerable investment. Requirements are also much more difficult to state with precision, because - unlike normal conditions - the circumstances in question arise infrequently, and their impacts are unpredictable. Inexpensive drones are very likely to lack safeguards that are mainstream in larger, more exensive and much more tightly controlled piloted aircraft. This results in enhanced risks to pubic safety.

5.3 Suitability for the Task

There are many different contexts in which drones operate. Examples of contexts that create particular challenges include:

In any given context, the use of a particular category or model of drone may not be appropriate, and its use will tend to increase risks to public safety.

5.4 Noticeability and Detectability

Small drones are far less obvious than piloted aircraft. This increases the risk that pilots of devices that are on a collision course will not detect that to be the case until after the collision, or after the collision becomes unavoidable.

If the adoption of drones continues to grow, there is a high likelihood that small drones will stray into airspace used by conventional aircraft. The existing problem of birdstrike is difficult for pilots to detect in sufficient time, and particularly during take-off and landing it is difficult for pilots to avoid such collisions. Small drones create similar issues, but with the added risk that their metal and hard plastic components may cause much more damage than the relatively soft bio-mass of a bird of similar size.

As nano-drones emerge, they will be even less apparent. Moreover, nano-drones are being conceived to be used in swarms, with individual devices redundant and highly-expendable, and largely or even entirely autonomous. In addition to their promise in such areas as environmental surveillance, they harbour considerable threats even when intended for beneficial or benign purposes.

5.5 Pilot Performance

The control of an aircraft from a remote location requires similar skills to those required of an on-board pilot. Indeed, aspects of the function may be more challenging, because of the need to continually visualise the surroundings of the aircraft rather than those of the pilot. Concentration on the pilot's virtual reality is subject to interruptions from the the pilot's physical reality ('feel like a coffee?, 'when are you going off-shift?', 'your wife's on the phone'). Added to that, a remote pilot lacks an onboard pilot's 'skin in the game', in that poor performance does not threaten their own physical survival.

Both onboard and remote piloting involve long periods of boredom interspersed with shorter periods during which rapid and finely-judged responses are needed, in complex environments that contain obstacles, other aircraft, and other activities, and where not all of the desirable contextual information may be available. It appears very likely that remote pilots will more frequently suffer a lack of sharpness of focus than onboard pilots.

An additional risk arises from the decision-aids on which the remote pilot depends. To the extent that user interfaces for drone pilot facilities resemble those common in computer games - or the interfaces in computer games adopt those used in drone piloting - the pilot may fall into a 'computer games mentality', in which case their attitude to risk may shift away from that appropriate to piloting. More generally, psychological and social constraints may be dulled, resulting in operation of drone facilities, such as cameras, in inappropriate ways.

In a variety of circumstances, a remote pilot is unlikely to have all of the desirable situational information available, and hence may make decisions that are less good than the decision an on-board pilot would have made. (In other circumstances, however, a remote pilot may have better access to relevant data, and may be better placed to make good decisions).

5.6 Airspace Congestion

Over the last century, the number of aircraft operating at any given time has grown substantially. The traffic is concentrated, particularly around population centres, on flight-paths into and out of major airports, and along popular routes. Zones of intense activity are subject to air traffic control processes. It may be that some proportion of drone traffic will substitute for existing piloted traffic. However, to date, drone traffic has mostly been additional to piloted traffic. It has also been almost entirely outside controlled airspace, because (with some exceptions) remotely-piloted flights inside controlled airspace are precluded by law.

However, several factors exist that suggest the likelihood of emergent congestion in previously non-busy airspace. For example, most hobbyist uses of small drones will be by people who live in densely-populated areas. Drone transport for industrial and commercial purposes will be to a large extent in urban areas. Surveillance activities will cluster around such locations as ground-traffic routes, tourism locations, sports and entertainment events, and gathering-points of celebrities and notorieties.

Piloted aircraft increasingly have 'detect and avoid' capabilities, some of which are designed as decision aids (e.g. proximity warnings) and others as decision-making tools (automated collision avoidance mechanisms). These capabilities are expensive, and hence unlikely to be built into inexpensive drones in the near future, unless that is mandated by law. Yet, in the absence of such capabilities, there will be an escalating risk of collisions, malperformance arising from near-misses, and badly-executed avoidance manoeuvres. A falling drone, even if it only weighs a few kilos, creates a risk of harm to pets, livestock and children, as well as adults, and of damage to property.

5.7 Electronic Congestion

The appropriateness of a drone's performance is highly dependent on streams of commands arriving from the pilot, and may also be at least partly dependent on data-feeds, particularly GPS data from satellites, but also from groundstations. Unreliability of data communications accordingly represents a threat to drone performance. This may lead to collisions, crash-landings and disturbance of the performance of other aircraft in the vicinity, which in turn create risks to public safety.

There is a limited range of frequency choices for electronic communications. There is competition for the available bandwidth, and quality decreases as communications traffic increases. Traffic tends to be higher in urban areas, and in zones that have considerable electronic communications traffic for other reasons. Physically congested airspace will tend to become electronically congested as well, because of the considerable amount of traffic each drone generates.

Drones that are deprived of command-streams and data-feeds are likely to become dangerous. The reason is that concepts such as 'fail-safe', 'fail-secure', 'fail-soft', 'fault tolerance' and 'graceful degradation' are difficult to define in operational terms, and challenging and expensive to implement. For example, a remotely-controlled road-vehicle that loses its command-stream might be designed to look for a vacant space on the road-verge and park in it until it receives further instructions. A drone may not have access to the equivalent of a road-verge or a parking-place, certainly not in mid-air (because there is no equivalent to marked lane-ways and hence no equivalent to off-the-road), and at this stage auto-landing functions are fraught with dangers.

That this is not a merely theoretical threat to public safety is evidenced by the many media reports that suggest that the causes of drone-crashes have mostly been interruptions to GPS or control-flow transmissions coupled with inadequate fail-safe designs to cope with signal-loss.

5.8 Quality Assurance

A considerable amount of hardware and software is on board each drone, and used within the systems whereby the remote pilot monitors the drone and its environment and controls its behaviour. In piloted aircraft, key safety-related facilities are subject to quality measures during design, manufacture, maintenance and operation, and to controls and audit.

If remotely-piloted aircraft are not subject to similar quality assurance measures, risks to public safety are inevitable.

5.9 Weaponisation

Drones are readily usable as a means of assault, whether through carriage of a harmful payload such as explosives or flammable materials, or simply through impact by the drone in 'kamikaze' mode. Drones used for an attack on persons or property are capable of being designed to be not readily detectable.

Control-streams are at least in principle, and very probably also in practice, capable of being intercepted and manipulated. Drone pilots might also be subjected to physical duress. By applying such techniques, an attacker need not use their own drone, but can instead hijack someone else's drone. This would be particularly useful where the attacker wants to obfuscate their identity, or to circumvent protective measures by taking advantage of a drone that is effectively 'whitelisted', i.e. expected to be in the vicinity of the target and hence not regarded as a threat.

Very small drones are being conceived to be used in swarms, with individual devices redundant and highly-expendable, and largely or even entirely autonomous. In addition to their promise in such areas as environmental surveillance, they harbour considerable threats when used with harmful intent. Swarmstrike at a passenger aircraft during take-off or landing is an all-too-apparent possibility.

Drones are also capable of being used as an instrument of sabotage, e.g. by physically interfering with the operations of vehicles or individuals involved in, for example, a rescue or a pursuit. They might also be a means of introducing signal interference or 'jamming' in an especially inopportune place, at a particularly inopportune time, using low-energy and therefore localised transmissions. By intent, all such applications of drones represent threats to public safety.

5.10 Loss of Human Control

Aircraft generally have some degree of autonomous control, some have auto-pilots for level flight under normal conditions, and a few have auto-landing and auto-take-off capabilities. To date, however, most drones have only very limited autonomy - at the level of maintaining attitude, altitude and direction - and perhaps some capabilities during loss of command-streams and/or data-feeds. At this stage, control has been ceded by humans to machines only at a level at which the harm arising from errors is likely to be comparable from the harm arising from human control.

However, humans might be in the process of ceding much more control to machines. This will arise where any of the following conditions is fulfilled:

A particular concern arises to the extent that drones are programmed using later-generation development tools, or include embedded learning capabilities. This is because, in such circumstances, the rationale for decisions cannot be provided, or is even non-existent (Clarke 2014b). Human operators, even if they retain the ability to exercise control over the drone's behaviour, would be 'flying blind' and human control over drone behaviour would be nominal not real. Humans would have in effect abdicated reason and succumbed to incomprehensible machine-made decisions.

5.11 Summary

The last two of the challenges discussed in this section are anticipatory. All of the other eight are current, and real. A wide array of 'failure modes' afflict drones. There have been many reports of crashes and near-misses, and there has been some damage to property, some risk to human life, and one death. Clarke (2014a) identifies informative examples in multiple countries. Unfortunately, it is currently necessary to rely on media reports, because air safety regulatory agencies around the world have been very selective, and very tardy, in both their investigations and their public reporting on these matters.

Some years ago, one author concluded that "electrical and mechanical reliability ... were as significant as human errors in the causes of accidents", and "a combination of design features are required to drive accident rates down to equivalent levels of safety to general aviation safety levels [including] dual channel, digital flight control system and redundant communications, ... [redundant] safety critical systems, [automation of] take off and landing ... [and] procedures and training for operators and [pilots]" (Armstrong 2010, pp. 12-13).

6. The Regulatory Response

It might be that the problems will fix themselves, or that existing regulatory arrangements will prove to be adequate. Unfortunately, both seem unlikely.

The dangers that drones embody are to others rather than the pilot. Many organisations and individuals that use drones will be difficult to even find, let alone sue, and many will be impervious to harm to their reputation. The risks are exacerbated by the low levels of investment going into drone manufacture, maintenance, and supporting infrastructure. In short, the natural controls of danger, economics and reputation seem unlikely to be effective.

Existing regulation may well be satisfactory for large drones. As the size of the drone decreases, so do the regulatory requirements, and so does the degree of interest shown by regulators in ensuring public safety. The quality and safety levels that apply to piloted aircraft bring with them high costs that are not sustainable in many segments of the drone market. In the small-drones segment, there is the risk of compromise of safety features. In the micro-drones segment, meanwhile, there is a substantial likelihood that safety will be only a very small factor in design, manufacture and operation.

The case for regulatory action in relation to small drones is strong. But will parliaments or regulators act? Possibly, but the signs are that they will do so very slowly, and perhaps so ponderously as to leave large gaps in the protective framework the public reasonably expects.

ICAO has moved excruciatingly slowly, to the extent that a further group called Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems (JARUS) has emerged, to try to fill the void. In Australia, a review has been in train since July 2011, and consultations have taken place with industry, but the information that is publicly available is very scant. See however, Corcoran (2013) and Clarke & Bennett Moses (2014).

It appears to be a widely-held position, and is clearly the case in Australia, that the present two-level approach is insufficient, and that additional levels need to be subject to somewhat different regulatory arrangements. An indicative categorisation is:

Generally, large drones tend to be perceived as being within-scope of existing regulatory frameworks, have navigation and communications capabilities comparable to piloted aircraft, and are manufactured, maintained and piloted within quality assurance frameworks similar to those applying to the manufacturers, maintenance organisations and pilots of manned aircraft. Critically, however, the same does not apply even to small drones, let alone to the burgeoning population of micro-drones and the emergent category of nano-drones.

CASA acknowledges that "The problem for us is the extraordinary rate these small RPAs are proliferating into the Australian airspace ... In February 2012, there were 15 holders of Operators' Certificates in Australia operating small RPAs for commercial purposes" (CASA 2013), whereas 2 years later the count had risen to 69 (CASA 2014).

CASA's declared intention is that drones would be "divided into groups characterised by their weight" and "only [drones] above a certain weight require a CASA approval. ... However, operators of RPAs in the lower weight range would be required to be registered with CASA and each RPA in that weight range would require an identification plate with the owner's name and address. RPA that are very small, for example less than 2kg would not require any approval as RPA of this size are considered to pose a low risk and low potential for harm".

7. Conclusions

Drones pose considerable challenges to public safety. Large drones continue to be subject to much the same safety requirements as piloted aircraft. Drones smaller than 100-150kg, on the other hand, are subject to light-weight and outdated provisions. The need for regulatory reform is admitted by the relevant agencies, but the progress in bringing it about is glacial in comparison with the rapid developments in technology and in the marketplace. Moreover, there is little transparency in such processes as are taking place. Public safety is at risk.


Armstrong A.J. (2010) `Development of a Methodology for Deriving Safety Metrics for UAV Operational Safety Performance Measurement' Report , Master of Science in Safety Critical Systems Engineering, Department of Computer Science, York University, January 2010, at

CASA (1998a) 'Unmanned Aircraft and Rockets: Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Operations, Design Specification, Maintenance and Training of Human Resources' Civil Aviation Safety Regulation (CASR) Part 101-1(0), Civil Aviation Safety Authority, original of 1998, current version of July 2002, at

CASA (1998b) 'Unmanned Aircraft and Rockets: Model Aircraft' Civil Aviation Safety Regulation (CASR) Part 101-3(0), Civil Aviation Safety Authority, original of 1998, current version of July 2002, at

CASA (2013) `RPAs (drones) in civil airspace and challenges for CASA' Civil Aviation Safety Authority, 3 July 2013, at

CASA (2014) 'List of UAS operator certificate holders' Civil Aviation Safety Authority, Canberra, at

Clarke R. (2014a) 'Understanding the Drone Epidemic' Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, January 2014, at

Clarke R. (2014b) 'What Drones Inherit from Their Ancestors' Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, January 2014, at

Clarke R. (2014c) 'The Regulation of Civilian Drones' Applications to the Surveillance of People' Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, January 2014, at

Clarke R. & Bennett Moses (2014) 'The Regulation of Civilian Drones' Impacts on Public Safety' Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, January 2014, at

Corcoran M. (2013) 'Drones set for commercial take-off' ABC News, 24 May 2013, at

ICAO (2006) `Exploratory Meeting On Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) ' International Civil Aviation Authority, Montréal, 23-24 May 2006, at

Moe A.T. (2013) 'Take-off for civilian drones' Norwegian Board of Technology, 19 June 2013, at

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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