Members of RoboLoCo with a $15,000 check they received to fund their trip to the world championships in St. Louis next week. More than 30 local organizations and businesses donated to the cause after their robot was stolen following a competition in Tennessee.
(Photo by Loudoun County Public Schools)

The “Red Baron” was missing and presumed gone forever, a robot with tons of promise that had become the victim of a Knoxville, Tenn. car theft.

The robot was the product of countless hours of engineering on the part of a group of Loudoun County high school students, and it had earned them an unexpected trip to the world championships in St. Louis. As they scrambled to re-create their invention on short notice during the past week, their long-shot hopes of success became even longer.

On Monday evening, police found the robot — along with a school laptop, tools and the team’s trophies — in a wooded area in Cocke County, Tenn. It was an exciting moment for the RoboLoCo team, but it came just slightly too late.

The robot, which remains with the Knoxville Police Department, will not be headed to the world championships because the team already rebuilt a replacement, which had to be shipped off to St. Louis on Monday for competition.

[Students make world robotics competition, but their robot was stolen]

“It’s definitely a joyous occasion even though we can’t really use it for the competition,” said Coach Michael Tomlinson, a teacher at Loudoun County’s Academy of Science. “It’s like recovering a family member or something.”

The recovery caps a week of intense ups and downs for the underdog team, which two weeks ago bested larger and more experienced competitors by earning second-place finish at a robotics tournament in Tennessee run by FIRST, an organization that promotes science education. The team is only in its second year and has about a dozen members, while other teams have 30 or more.

The day after the competition, the team discovered the school SUV was missing from the hotel parking lot, and police presumed it and its cargo was headed to a chop shop. The team immediately dove in to rebuilding a practice robot. They put the finishing touches on that robot Sunday, staying until past midnight to practice driving it and to pack it into a shipping create. The new robot is named Woodstock, for the avian sidekick to Snoopy the dog — sometimes known as the “Red Baron” — in the Peanuts cartoons.

The missing robot wasn’t the team’s only challenge. Since the team did not anticipate making it to the next round of competition, they had less than $2,000 in their budget for the FIRST World Championship. But local businesses came through for the team, underwriting the $15,000 trip and the $5,000 entrance fee.

Knoxville police believe the car was stolen for its parts and taken to neighboring Cocke County to be dismantled. The car’s GPS last placed it in a small town in the county, but the car was never recovered and police spokesman Darrell DeBusk said he believes it’s long gone.

DeBusk said the police chief in the small city of Newport got a tip Monday evening that the robot was in a wooded area and later recovered it. DeBusk said the equipment, which was handed off to Knoxville police, was found outside but appeared undamaged. The robot was in a large plastic bag.

[Team that had robot stolen gets $15,000 donation to go to St. Louis competition]

Loudoun County schools spokesman Wayde Byard said the school system is now working to see if a business can donate freight service to get the robot and tools back to Virginia.

Jacob Hughes, a 17-year-old RoboLoCo team member from Briar Woods High School, said he was overjoyed when he heard the robot was found. As the robot driver, he is responsible for controlling the robot with a pair of joysticks during competition, making sure it does not go too fast or knock anything over.

“I’m just excited because we put a lot of time into that robot,” he said. So even though it will not accompany them to competition, “it was more how much time we put into that robot and all the experiences we had with it,” he said.