drones

Team studies drone strikes on airplanes by firing them into a wall at 500 MPH

Posted by | drones, fraunhofer, Gadgets, hardware, robotics, science, UAVs | No Comments

Bird strikes are a very real danger to planes in flight, and consequently aircraft are required to undergo bird strike testing — but what about drones? With UAV interference at airports on the rise, drone strike testing may soon be likewise mandatory, and if it’s anything like what these German researchers are doing, it’ll involve shooting the craft out of air cannons at high speed.

The work being done at Fraunhofer EMI in Freiburg is meant to establish some basic parameters for how these things ought to be tested.

Bird strikes, for example, are tested by firing a frozen poultry bird like a chicken or turkey out of an air cannon. It’s not pretty, but it has to be done. Even so, it’s not a very good analogue to a drone strike.

“From a mechanical point of view, drones behave differently to birds and also weigh considerably more. It is therefore uncertain, whether an aircraft that has been successfully tested against bird strike, would also survive a collision with a drone,” explained Fraunhofer’s Sebastian Schopferer in a news release.

The team chose to load an air cannon with drone batteries and engines, since those make up most of any given UAV’s mass. The propellers and arms on which they’re mounted are generally pretty light and will break easily — compared with a battery weighing the better part of a kilogram, they won’t add much to the damage.

drone testing

The remains of a drone engine and battery after being propelled into the plate on the left at hundreds of miles per hour

The drones were fired at speeds from 250 to 570 miles per hour (115 to 255 meters per second by their measurement) at aluminum plates of up to 8 millimeters of thickness. Unsurprisingly, there was “substantial deformation” of the plates and the wingless drones were “completely destroyed.” Said destruction was recorded by a high-speed camera, though unfortunately the footage was not made available.

It’s necessary to do a variety of tests to determine what’s practical and what’s unnecessary or irrelevant — why spend the extra time and money firing the drones at 570 mph when 500 does the same level of damage? Does including the arms and propellers make a difference? At what speed is the plate in danger of being pierced, necessitating additional protective measures? And so on. A new rig is being constructed that will allow acceleration (and deceleration) of larger UAVs.

With enough testing the team hopes that not only could such things be standardized, but simulations could be built that would allow engineers to virtually test different surfaces or materials without a costly and explosive test rig.

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This clever transforming robot flies and rolls on its rotating arms

Posted by | drones, Gadgets, hardware, robotics, science, TC, UAVs | No Comments

There’s great potential in using both drones and ground-based robots for situations like disaster response, but generally these platforms either fly or creep along the ground. Not the “Flying STAR,” which does both quite well, and through a mechanism so clever and simple you’ll wish you’d thought of it.

Conceived by researchers at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, the “flying sprawl-tuned autonomous robot” is based on the elementary observation that both rotors and wheels spin. So why shouldn’t a vehicle have both?

Well, there are lots of good reasons why it’s difficult to create such a hybrid, but the team, led by David Zarrouk, overcame them with the help of today’s high-powered, lightweight drone components. The result is a robot that can easily fly when it needs to, then land softly and, by tilting the rotor arms downwards, direct that same motive force into four wheels.

Of course you could have a drone that simply has a couple of wheels on the bottom that let it roll along. But this improves on that idea in several ways. In the first place, it’s mechanically more efficient because the same motor drives the rotors and wheels at the same time — though when rolling, the RPMs are of course considerably lower. But the rotating arms also give the robot a flexible stance, large wheelbase and high clearance that make it much more capable on rough terrain.

You can watch FSTAR fly, roll, transform, flatten and so on in the following video, prepared for presentation at the IEEE International Convention on Robotics and Automation in Montreal:

The ability to roll along at up to 8 feet per second using comparatively little energy, while also being able to leap over obstacles, scale stairs or simply ascend and fly to a new location, give FSTAR considerable adaptability.

“We plan to develop larger and smaller versions to expand this family of sprawling robots for different applications, as well as algorithms that will help exploit speed and cost of transport for these flying/driving robots,” said Zarrouk in a press release.

Obviously at present this is a mere prototype, and will need further work to bring it to a state where it could be useful for rescue teams, commercial operations and the military.

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Drone sighting at Germany’s busiest airport grounds flights for about an hour

Posted by | drone, drone regulations, drones, Europe, Frankfurt, Frankfurt Airport, Gadgets, Gatwick Airport, Germany, robotics | No Comments

A drone sighting caused all flights to be suspended at Frankfurt Airport for around an hour this morning. The airport is Germany’s busiest by passenger numbers, serving almost 14.8 million passengers in the first three months of this year.

In a tweet sent after flights had resumed the airport reported that operations were suspended at 07:27, before the suspension was lifted at 08:15, with flights resuming at 08:18.

It added that security authorities were investigating the incident.

Drohnensichtung am @Airport_FRA . Flugbetrieb im Zeitraum von 07:27 bis 08:15 Uhr eingestellt. Aufklärungs- und Fahndungsmaßnahmen der Sicherheitsbehörden wurden umgesetzt. Flugbetrieb seit 08:18 Uhr wieder aufgenommen. Unsere Pressemitteilung folgt. #BPol #WirSindSicherheit pic.twitter.com/ejXhY4Iva7

— Bundespolizei Flughafen Frankfurt am Main (@bpol_air_fra) May 9, 2019

A report in local press suggests more than 100 takeoffs and landings were cancelled as a result of the disruption caused by the drone sighting.

All flights to Frankfurt (FRA) are currently holding or diverting due to drone activity near the airport https://t.co/tAdvgn4Mpf pic.twitter.com/eKC1U2CyTq

— International Flight Network (@FlightIntl) May 9, 2019

It’s the second such incident at the airport after a drone sighting at the end of March also caused flights to be suspended for around half an hour.

Drone sightings near airports have been on the increase for years as drones have landed in the market at increasingly affordable prices, as have reports of drone near misses with aircraft.

The Frankfurt suspension follows far more major disruption caused by repeat drone sightings at the UK’s second largest airport, Gatwick Airport, late last year — which caused a series of flight shutdowns and travel misery for hundreds of thousands of people right before the holiday period.

The UK government came in for trenchant criticism immediately afterwards, with experts saying it had failed to listen and warnings about the risks posed by drone misuse. A planned drone bill has also been long delayed, meaning new legislation to comprehensively regulate drones has slipped.

In response to the Gatwick debacle the UK government quickly pushed through an expansion of existing drone no-fly zones around airports after criticism by aviation experts — beefing up the existing 1km exclusion zone to 5km. It also said police would get new powers to tackle drone misuse.

In Germany an amendment to air traffic regulations entered into force in 2017 that prohibits drones being flown within 1.5km of an airport. Drones are also banned from being flown in controlled airspace.

However with local press reporting rising drone sightings near German airports, with the country’s Air Traffic Control registering 125 last year (31 of which were around Frankfurt), the 1.5km limit looks similarly inadequate.

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Alphabet’s Wing gets FAA permission to start delivering by drone

Posted by | Alphabet, artificial intelligence, drone delivery, drones, FAA, Federal Aviation Administration, Gadgets, Google, hardware, Project Wing, robotics, Transportation, wing, Wing Aviation | No Comments

Wing Aviation, the drone-based delivery startup born out of Google’s X labs, has received the first FAA certification in the country for commercial carriage of goods. It might not be long before you’re getting your burritos sent par avion.

The company has been performing tests for years, making thousands of flights and supervised deliveries to show that its drones are safe and effective. Many of those flights were in Australia, where in suburban Canberra the company recently began its first commercial operations. Finland and other countries are also in the works.

Wing’s first operations, starting later this year, will be in Blacksburg and Christiansburg, Va.; obviously an operation like this requires close coordination with municipal authorities as well as federal ones. You can’t just get a permission slip from the FAA and start flying over everyone’s houses.

“Wing plans to reach out to the local community before it begins food delivery, to gather feedback to inform its future operations,” the FAA writes in a press release. Here’s hoping that means you can choose whether or not these loud little aircraft will be able to pass through your airspace.

Although the obvious application is getting a meal delivered quickly even when traffic is bad, there are plenty of other applications. One imagines quick delivery of medications ahead of EMTs, or blood being transferred quickly between medical centers.

I’ve asked Wing for more details on its plans to roll this out elsewhere in the U.S. and will update this story if I hear back.

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Did you fly a drone over Fenway Park? The FAA would like a chat

Posted by | drones, FAA, Gadgets, hardware | No Comments

Drones are great. But they are also flying machines that can do lots of stupid and dangerous things. Like, for instance, fly over a major league baseball game packed with spectators. It happened at Fenway Park last night, and the FAA is not happy.

The illegal flight took place last night during a Red Sox-Blue Jays game at Fenway; the drone, a conspicuously white DJI Phantom, reportedly first showed up around 9:30 PM, coming and going over the next hour.

One of the many fans who shot a video of the drone, Chris O’Brien, told CBS Boston that “it would kind of drop fast then go back up then drop and spin. It was getting really low and close to the players. At one point it was getting really low and I was wondering are they going to pause the game and whatever, but they never did.

Places where flying is regularly prohibited, like airports and major landmarks like stadiums, often have no-fly rules baked into the GPS systems of drones — and that’s the case with DJI. In a statement, however, the company said that “whoever flew this drone over the stadium apparently overrode our geofencing system and deliberately violated the FAA temporary flight restriction in place over the game.”

The FAA said that it (and Boston PD) is investigating both to local news and in a tweet explaining why it is illegal.

FAA Statement: The FAA is investigating a report that a #drone flew over @fenwaypark during the baseball game last night. Flying drones in/around stadiums is prohibited starting 1hr before & ending 1hr after the scheduled game & prohibited within a radius of 3 nm of the stadium. pic.twitter.com/o6nOGVf8K2

— The FAA (@FAANews) April 12, 2019

That’s three nautical miles, which is quite a distance, covering much of central Boston. You don’t really take chances when there are tens of thousands of people all gathered in one spot on a regular basis like that. Drones open up some pretty ugly security scenarios.

Of course, this wasn’t a mile and a half from Fenway, which might have earned a slap on the wrist, but directly over the park, which as the FAA notes above could lead to hundreds of thousands in fines and actual prison time. It’s not hard to imagine why: If that drone had lost power or caught a gust (or been hit by a fly ball, at that altitude), it could have hurt or killed someone in the crowd.

It’s especially concerning when the FAA is working on establishing new rules for both hobby and professional drone use. You should leave a comment there if you feel strongly about this, by the way.

Here’s hoping they catch the idiot who did this. It just goes to show that you can’t trust people to follow the rules, even when they’re coded into a craft’s OS. It’s things like this that make mandatory registration of drones sound like a pretty good idea.

(Red Sox won, by the way. But the season’s off to a rough start.)

The Inning: Bottom 9
The Score: Tied
The Bases: Loaded
The Result: pic.twitter.com/lrRneiCGim

— Boston Red Sox (@RedSox) April 12, 2019

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DroneBase raises capital and partners with FLIR Systems to train pilots on thermal imaging tech

Posted by | dronebase, drones, electronics, Gadgets, hardware, Los Angeles, Media, targeting, TC, technology, telecommunications | No Comments

Publicly traded sensor technology developer FLIR Systems is investing in a strategic round of funding for the outsourced drone imaging company, DroneBase.

The two companies are also partnering to provide FLIR’s thermal imaging technology and training services to DroneBase’s stable of pilots.

Terms of the investment were not disclosed.

“Our investment in DroneBase helps expand the adoption of FLIR thermal imaging technology by putting it in the hands of more pilots who fly drones every day,” said Jim Cannon, the president and chief executive of FLIR, in a statement. “DroneBase’s enterprise pilot network will receive training by professional thermographers, enabling DroneBase to offer specialized thermal inspection services for customers on a wider scale, and creating an opportunity for FLIR to incorporate additional service offerings through DroneBase in the future.”

Los Angeles-based DroneBase has contracted pilots to complete more than 100,000 commercial missions in 70-plus countries for residential and commercial real estate, insurance, telecommunications, construction and media companies, according to a statement.

Through FLIR’s Infrared Training Center, FLIR and DroneBase will develop a specialized training program that will be certified exclusively by DroneBase.

“Through FLIR’s strategic investment in DroneBase, we are now able to offer scalable thermal solutions to enterprises of any size,” said Dan Burton, founder and chief executive of DroneBase, in a statement. “This access to valuable data will allow stakeholders to make better decisions about their most critical assets. Like myself, many DroneBase pilots relied on FLIR products when they served in the military. This integration will offer military veterans a chance to work with FLIR again and leverage their training in their civilian lives.”

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Mars helicopter bound for the Red Planet takes to the air for the first time

Posted by | drones, Gadgets, Government, hardware, jpl, mars 2020, NASA, robotics, science, Space, TC, UAVs | No Comments

The Mars 2020 mission is on track for launch next year, and nesting inside the high-tech new rover heading that direction is a high-tech helicopter designed to fly in the planet’s nearly non-existent atmosphere. The actual aircraft that will fly on the Martian surface just took its first flight and its engineers are over the moon.

“The next time we fly, we fly on Mars,” said MiMi Aung, who manages the project at JPL, in a news release. An engineering model that was very close to final has over an hour of time in the air, but these two brief test flights were the first and last time the tiny craft will take flight until it does so on the distant planet (not counting its “flight” during launch).

“Watching our helicopter go through its paces in the chamber, I couldn’t help but think about the historic vehicles that have been in there in the past,” she continued. “The chamber hosted missions from the Ranger Moon probes to the Voyagers to Cassini, and every Mars rover ever flown. To see our helicopter in there reminded me we are on our way to making a little chunk of space history as well.”

Artist’s impression of how the helicopter will look when it’s flying on Mars

A helicopter flying on Mars is much like a helicopter flying on Earth, except of course for the slight differences that the other planet has a third less gravity and 99 percent less air. It’s more like flying at 100,000 feet, Aung suggested.

It has its own solar panel so it can explore more or less on its own

The test rig they set up not only produces a near-vacuum, replacing the air with a thin, Mars-esque CO2 mix, but a “gravity offload” system simulates lower gravity by giving the helicopter a slight lift via a cable.

It flew at a whopping two inches of altitude for a total of a minute in two tests, which was enough to show the team that the craft (with all its 1,500 parts and four pounds) was ready to package up and send to the Red Planet.

“It was a heck of a first flight,” said tester Teddy Tzanetos. “The gravity offload system performed perfectly, just like our helicopter. We only required a 2-inch hover to obtain all the data sets needed to confirm that our Mars helicopter flies autonomously as designed in a thin Mars-like atmosphere; there was no need to go higher.”

A few months after the Mars 2020 rover has landed, the helicopter will detach and do a few test flights of up to 90 seconds. Those will be the first heavier-than-air flights on another planet — powered flight, in other words, rather than, say, a balloon filled with gaseous hydrogen.

The craft will operate mostly autonomously, since the half-hour round trip for commands would be far too long for an Earth-based pilot to operate it. It has its own solar cells and batteries, plus little landing feet, and will attempt flights of increasing distance from the rover over a 30-day period. It should go about three meters in the air and may eventually get hundreds of meters away from its partner.

Mars 2020 is estimated to be ready to launch next summer, arriving at its destination early in 2021. Of course, in the meantime, we’ve still got Curiosity and Insight up there, so if you want the latest from Mars, you’ve got plenty of options to choose from.

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Ocean drone startup merger spawns Sofar, the DJI of the sea

Posted by | drones, eCommerce, Exit, funding, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, GreenTech, hardware, M&A, openrov, Recent Funding, science, Startups, TC, underwater drone | No Comments

What lies beneath the murky depths? SolarCity co-founder Peter Rive wants to help you and the scientific community find out. He’s just led a $7 million Series A for Sofar Ocean Technologies, a new startup formed from a merger he orchestrated between underwater drone maker OpenROV and sea sensor developer Spoondrift. Together, they’re teaming up their 1080p Trident drone and solar-powered Spotter sensor to let you collect data above and below the surface. They can help you shoot awesome video footage, track waves and weather, spot fishing and diving spots, inspect boats or infrastructure for damage, monitor acquaculture sites or catch smugglers.

Sofar’s Trident drone (left) and Spotter sensor (right)

“Aerial drones give us a different perspective of something we know pretty well. Ocean drones give us a view at something we don’t really know at all,” former Spoondrift and now Sofar CEO Tim Janssen tells me. “The Trident drone was created for field usage by scientists and is now usable by anyone. This is pushing the barrier towards the unknown.”

But while Rive has a soft spot for the ecological potential of DIY ocean exploration, the sea is crowded with competing drones. There are more expensive professional research-focused devices like the Saildrone, DeepTrekker and SeaOtter-2, as well as plenty of consumer-level devices like the $800 Robosea Biki, $1,000 Fathom ONE and $5,000 iBubble. The $1,700 Sofar Trident, which requires a cord to a surface buoy to power its three hours of dive time and two meters per second speed, sits in the middle of the pack, but Sofar co-founder David Lang things Trident can win with simplicity, robustness and durability. The question is whether Sofar can become the DJI of the water, leading the space, or if it will become just another commoditized hardware maker drowning in knock-offs.

From left: Peter Rive (chairman of Sofar), David Lang (co-founder of OpenROV) and Tim Janssen (co-founder and CEO of Sofar)

Spoondrift launched in 2016 and raised $350,000 to build affordable ocean sensors that can produce climate-tracking data. “These buoys (Spotters) are surprisingly easy to deploy, very light and easy to handle, and can be lowered in the water by hand using a line. As a result, you can deploy them in almost any kind of conditions,” says Dr. Aitana Forcén-Vázquez of MetOcean Solutions.

OpenROV (it stands for Remotely Operated Vehicle) started seven years ago and raised $1.3 million in funding from True Ventures and National Geographic, which was also one of its biggest Trident buyers. “Everyone who has a boat should have an underwater drone for hull inspection. Any dock should have its own weather station with wind and weather sensors,” Sofar’s new chairman Rive declares.

Spotter could unlock data about the ocean at scale

Sofar will need to scale to accomplish Rive’s mission to get enough sensors in the sea to give us more data on the progress of climate change and other ecological issues. “We know very little about our oceans since we have so little data, because putting systems in the ocean is extremely expensive. It can cost millions for sensors and for boats,” he tells me. We gave everyone GPS sensors and cameras and got better maps. The ability to put low-cost sensors on citizens’ rooftops unlocked tons of weather forecasting data. That’s more feasible with Spotter, which costs $4,900 compared to $100,000 for some sea sensors.

Sofar hardware owners do not have to share data back to the startup, but Rive says many customers are eager to. They’ve requested better data portability so they can share with fellow researchers. The startup believes it can find ways to monetize that data in the future, which is partly what attracted the funding from Rive and fellow investors True Ventures and David Sacks’ Craft Ventures. The funding will build up that data business and also help Sofar develop safeguards to make sure its Trident drones don’t go where they shouldn’t. That’s obviously important, given London’s Gatwick airport shutdown due to a trespassing drone.

Spotter can relay weather conditions and other climate data to your phone

“The ultimate mission of the company is to connect humanity to the ocean as we’re mostly conservationists at heart,” Rive concludes. “As more commercialization and business opportunities arise, we’ll have to have conversations about whether those are directly benefiting the ocean. It will be important to have our moral compass facing in the right direction to protect the earth.”

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Tiny claws let drones perch like birds and bats

Posted by | artificial intelligence, biomimesis, biomimetic, drones, Gadgets, hardware, robotics, science | No Comments

Drones are useful in countless ways, but that usefulness is often limited by the time they can stay in the air. Shouldn’t drones be able to take a load off too? With these special claws attached, they can perch or hang with ease, conserving battery power and vastly extending their flight time.

The claws, created by a highly multinational team of researchers I’ll list at the end, are inspired by birds and bats. The team noted that many flying animals have specially adapted feet or claws suited to attaching the creature to its favored surface. Sometimes they sit, sometimes they hang, sometimes they just kind of lean on it and don’t have to flap as hard.

As the researchers write:

In all of these cases, some suitably shaped part of the animal’s foot interacts with a structure in the environment and facilitates that less lift needs to be generated or that power flight can be completely suspended. Our goal is to use the same concept, which is commonly referred to as “perching,” for UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles].

“Perching,” you say? Go on…

We designed a modularized and actuated landing gear framework for rotary-wing UAVs consisting of an actuated gripper module and a set of contact modules that are mounted on the gripper’s fingers.

This modularization substantially increased the range of possible structures that can be exploited for perching and resting as compared with avian-inspired grippers.

Instead of trying to build one complex mechanism, like a pair of articulating feet, the team gave the drones a set of specially shaped 3D-printed static modules and one big gripper.

The drone surveys its surroundings using lidar or some other depth-aware sensor. This lets it characterize surfaces nearby and match those to a library of examples that it knows it can rest on.

Squared-off edges like those on the top right can be rested on as in A, while a pole can be balanced on as in B.

If the drone sees and needs to rest on a pole, it can grab it from above. If it’s a horizontal bar, it can grip it and hang below, flipping up again when necessary. If it’s a ledge, it can use a little cutout to steady itself against the corner, letting it shut off or all its motors. These modules can easily be swapped out or modified depending on the mission.

I have to say the whole thing actually seems to work remarkably well for a prototype. The hard part appears to be the recognition of useful surfaces and the precise positioning required to land on them properly. But it’s useful enough — in professional and military applications especially, one suspects — that it seems likely to be a common feature in a few years.

The paper describing this system was published in the journal Science Robotics. I don’t want to leave anyone out, so it’s by: Kaiyu Hang, Ximin Lyu, Haoran Song, Johannes A. Stork , Aaron M. Dollar, Danica Kragic and Fu Zhang, from Yale, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the University of Hong Kong, and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

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Koala-sensing drone helps keep tabs on drop bear numbers

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Australia, Computer Vision, conservation, drones, Gadgets, hardware, machine learning, science, TC, UAVs | No Comments

It’s obviously important to Australians to make sure their koala population is closely tracked — but how can you do so when the suckers live in forests and climb trees all the time? With drones and AI, of course.

A new project from Queensland University of Technology combines some well-known techniques in a new way to help keep an eye on wild populations of the famous and soft marsupials. They used a drone equipped with a heat-sensing camera, then ran the footage through a deep learning model trained to look for koala-like heat signatures.

It’s similar in some ways to an earlier project from QUT in which dugongs — endangered sea cows — were counted along the shore via aerial imagery and machine learning. But this is considerably harder.

A koala

“A seal on a beach is a very different thing to a koala in a tree,” said study co-author Grant Hamilton in a news release, perhaps choosing not to use dugongs as an example because comparatively few know what one is.

“The complexity is part of the science here, which is really exciting,” he continued. “This is not just somebody counting animals with a drone, we’ve managed to do it in a very complex environment.”

The team sent their drone out in the early morning, when they expected to see the greatest contrast between the temperature of the air (cool) and tree-bound koalas (warm and furry). It traveled as if it was a lawnmower trimming the tops of the trees, collecting data from a large area.

Infrared image, left, and output of the neural network highlighting areas of interest

This footage was then put through a deep learning system trained to recognize the size and intensity of the heat put out by a koala, while ignoring other objects and animals like cars and kangaroos.

For these initial tests, the accuracy of the system was checked by comparing the inferred koala locations with ground truth measurements provided by GPS units on some animals and radio tags on others. Turns out the system found about 86 percent of the koalas in a given area, considerably better than an “expert koala spotter,” who rates about a 70. Not only that, but it’s a whole lot quicker.

“We cover in a couple of hours what it would take a human all day to do,” Hamilton said. But it won’t replace human spotters or ground teams. “There are places that people can’t go and there are places that drones can’t go. There are advantages and downsides to each one of these techniques, and we need to figure out the best way to put them all together. Koalas are facing extinction in large areas, and so are many other species, and there is no silver bullet.”

Having tested the system in one area of Queensland, the team is now going to head out and try it in other areas of the coast. Other classifiers are planned to be added as well, so other endangered or invasive species can be identified with similar ease.

Their paper was published today in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

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