The Swarm Descends

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The “Swarmies” at Kennedy Space Center. Photo property of NASA

Most of us can relate to a feeling that education in the US is fighting a slump. If we haven’t experienced it ourselves, we’ve at least seen it: Funding for enrichment drying up, a shortage of essential supplies, and focus seemingly geared only toward standardized testing. We wonder why more isn’t being done, and with good reason. Despite the gloom and frustration, this coming swarm isn’t a tide of pestilence and destruction. It’s not a metaphor for deepening poverty or an “at risk” label. This swarm is something to look forward to and a sign that not everyone with resources is squandering or hording them.

In May of 2015, the University of New Mexico received a very prestigious honor from NASA, as in The NASA. In April of the coming year, NASA will hold a new annual contest called, “The Swarmathon.” College students from across the US, selected to participate in teams, will each receive a group of “Swarmies” which they will then program to identify and collect resources. The contest is incredibly exciting, and I can’t wait to tell you all more about it, but in this post I’m going to keep some of the most interesting aspects of the swarm at bay. We are still outfitting it with the best possible components after all.

Fresh out of the Projet 3510
Fresh out of the Projet 3510

Our job was to help fight two of the major pitfalls for 3D Printing: The expense and the quality. These are the major obstacles currently facing production runs on parts. It’s something I’ve mentioned before, but the industry at large is shooting itself in the foot almost every day, because some of the biggest voices aren’t up front about the fact that the technology is still in the process of mastering ease of use and a price point that virtually anyone can access.
When UNM came to us, they were dealing with a very real, universally felt problem. They, like many, love 3D Printing, but were not satisfied with the quality of the parts produced by the “personal models,” which rely up on filament. If you’re not familiar, while filament printers have great applications, producing functional parts usually isn’t the ideal choice. It wasn’t difficult to come up with a solution which fit their needs perfectly and took their designs to the next level. Instead of throwing around a lot of technical jargon, let’s just say the parts we’re producing for the Swarmies are a lot like cast resin. Their obvious advantage is phenomenal durability, and a really clean finish. The other great effect is cosmetic: The parts are eye-catching. We can’t wait to see them all fastened and assembled swarming around the Kennedy Space Center.

photo (1)One of the things I’ve enjoyed so much about this project is how real it is: NASA feels so intangible, the idea of space exploration even more so. Thanks to about 45 ant-mimicking robots opportunities are being extended, and even new relationships are being formed. Ironically, the Swarmathon is doing just as much for sustaining life on Earth as it is in prepping to sustain life on other planets. It’s a great example of a complex technology bringing real, every day benefits.


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