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The Red Beard Pandas are the middle- and high-school robotics students organized by New River Robotics Association and practicing here in the CRC, Building 2270.  They compete in FTC, FIRST Tech Challenge, a global program with over 87,400 students developing STEM skills through FIRST, “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.”   This year’s challenge involves a stage theme, moving hexagonal four-inch pixels across a twelve-foot field with both autonomous and driver-controlled periods, with four robot teams on the field during each 2.5 minute match. 

The Red Beard Pandas, Team 4924, organized a tournament earlier this year, December 3rd, in Christiansburg, where 18 teams mostly from southwest Virginia competed for the first time since the challenge was released in September.  The Pandas’ robot, “Dinghy” performed in the middle of the pack, and the team did well in front of the judges, capturing the “Motivate” award for their work supporting other FIRST teams.  On January 14th, the Pandas traveled to Charlottesville for their second competition of the season. Their robot had undergone several upgrades during the winter break, and the team stepped up its rehearsals for judging. The Charlottesville tournament had 24 teams competing, including some that are very well-funded and experienced.  The Pandas finished 5 qualifier matches ranked 16th out of 24, and were just barely picked to move into the alliance finals for the day, made up of the best 12 teams in a best 2 out of 3 elimination.  As the finals progressed, Pandas on the 4th seed alliance beat the 1st seed in 2 matches, then lost a match to the 2nd seed, then tied, then won, and finally won against the 2nd seed to become the winning alliance! The ceremony then turned to judged awards. At stake were just 3 advancement slots to the District Championship in Haymarket this weekend.  The Pandas were not mentioned until the highest award, called the Inspire award, for superior performance in all categories! They won the 1st slot to advance to the championship, competing against 53 teams, the top 15%, from Virginia, DC and Maryland.  The tournament is available online at (this link jumps to the semifinals, 4:47:00, in the day-long event. Look for team number 4924)

The Pandas have been practicing Tuesday and Friday evenings in the New River Robotics suite of building 2270, plus extra sessions on weekends to prepare for the championship. Coach Ethan Bass is employed by Skyphos, a company in the park’s building 2000 and focused on producing micro-scale 3D printing for lab-on-a-chip.  Coach Ethan said, “Regardless of how we do in Haymarket, this has been the Red Beard Panda’s best competition year. I am extremely proud of everything this team has accomplished, and our tremendous impact on starting FIRST Lego League teams (K through 9th grade), helping FIRST Tech Challenge teams (7th-12th grade), and our 2 graduating seniors.”  NRRA leaders Henry and Lisa Bass, also owners of Automation Creations, Inc. in building 2020 of the CRC, quipped, “It’s worth noting that our Pandas, with their burnt-orange hats, and coaches all alum of Virginia Tech, swept their division in Charlottesville, with both the best-performing robot and best-judged team.” 

The next robotics event in this area will be the Blacksburg FIRST Robotics Competition, March 2nd and 3rd.  Spectators can see six robots at a time in 2.5-minute matches on the Blacksburg High School indoor basketball court. More information, including volunteer opportunities and events for K-12, is available at the New River Robotics Association website,

The New River Robotics Association is an all-volunteer non-profit organization dedicated to providing competitive robotics and STEM opportunities to K-12 students in our region. They welcome inquiries from CRC park tenants interested in joining, coaching, and supporting the development of future tech talent! Contact Henry Bass at for more information.

Charlottesville winning alliance – 11 team members in their Orange Red Beard Panda hats, holding their robot “Dinghy”, with Coach Ethan Bass in the captain’s hat, pose with teams 9530 and 23565 also from the winning alliance.

Pandas on the competition field: Pandas on the upper left side drive their robot during a match, with 3 other robot teams at the same time. The drive team consists of a student coach, driver 1 for robot motion, and driver 2 for robot accessories. A human player, bottom right, passes pixels onto the field.