RoboLoCo, a robotics squad of about a dozen students from Loudoun County, was considered an underdog in a regional competition last weekend in Knoxville, Tenn., where it was up against veteran programs that had 30 or more students. And no one — not even the team’s coach, Michael Tomlinson — expected the students to make it very far.
But the team, made up of students from the Academy of Science, the Monroe Technology Center and Loudoun County High School, advanced round after round through the competition run by FIRST, an organization that promotes engineering education. The team came in second and received a wild-card invitation to the world championship in St. Louis.
By then, Tomlinson, an Academy of Science teacher, was racking his brain to figure out how to pay for the trip to Missouri. The club had not budgeted for the championship because members didn’t think they would get there.
But Sunday, the team awoke to a new challenge: The school’s SUV — along with the team’s hand-built robot — was gone. Stolen with it were a school computer and the trophies. More than $5,000 worth of tools and equipment were taken.
Crestfallen, Tomlinson delivered the news to the students, who thought it was a belated April Fools’ joke.
“For everybody, it was total disbelief,” he said.
Darrell DeBusk, a spokesman for the Knoxville Police Department, said police think the Chevy Tahoe was stolen and hauled off to be dismantled and sold for parts in nearby Cocke County. The vehicle’s GPS put its last location in the small town of Cosby, Tenn., and law enforcement officials said they could not find it, DeBusk said.
Now, RoboLoCo team members face the daunting challenge of raising $15,000 to travel to St. Louis while rebuilding their robot — all by Tuesday. The squad had built a practice robot, but it must be re-engineered. They’ll be putting in long hours to get it done, Tomlinson said.
The FIRST competitions judge how fast and accurately robots can complete physical tasks. This year’s robots had to stack plastic totes and trash cans on top of platforms and then stick foam pool noodles in the trash cans, a feat of dexterity for a machine. RoboLoCo’s robot was an upright contraption with moveable arms to grasp the boxes and wheels. The team named it the “Red Baron,” after Snoopy’s scarf-wearing antagonist in the Peanuts cartoons.
Mary Zell Galen, 17, is a senior at Loudoun County High School and the president of RoboLoCo. She said the team has heard from robotics squads near and far: A team from Fairfax County dropped off parts; a team from Mexico sent a tweet asking what it could do. It is typical of the robotics community, which she described as intensely competitive but deeply collegial.
But she did not sugarcoat the challenge ahead. The team had six weeks “of sleepless nights and letting homework slide” to build the first robot, she said. They have less than a week to use a rudimentary practice robot as the base for the real thing. But the students are determined and optimistic.
“It’s definitely going to happen. We’re going to St. Louis,” she said.
Corporate sponsors have pitched in. Orbital ATK has paid the $5,000 entry fee to the world competition. The Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce has contributed $1,000. The Loudoun Education Foundation has spearheaded its own fundraising effort.
On Tuesday, Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.), who had a prescheduled visit to Monroe Technology Center, met with team members and tried to bolster their spirits.
“Ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s not about the robot . . . it’s about spirit and character,” he said in a news release.
Tomlinson said he has been struck by the students’ perseverance. And he said they understand that the purpose of robotics is not about competition, but about teaching students engineering.
“It’s really more about the process than about the robot itself,” he said. “In a way, even if the robot’s gone, the process is still there.”
George Wolfe, the director of the Academy of Science, said he, too, has been impressed with the students’ attitude.
“It’s a miserable, horrible thing that the robot was stolen,” he said. “But we’re calling them the little team that could.”