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"As one of my commanders said, 'The only reason people will follow Blitch around is to see what he screws up next - it's idle curiosity.'"

Blitch has more pictures than he can count of missions with his remotely operated vehicles: Post-9/11. Post-Katrina. Or, when his technical crew was deployed last December to Oregon's Mount Hood one week after three climbers had gone missing.

But Blitch is quick to minimize his accomplishments for one reason: "We have value, but we haven't saved a life yet," Blitch said last week from his Morrison office before heading east on his next assignment.

Blitch is embracing the artificial-intelligence frontier by employing men and women along with robotic technologies in crisis response, humanitarian assistance and civil support.

And his fleet of robots comes in all shapes and pricesfrom $5,000 devices that can be tossed like a grenade into hard-to-reach places, to a $150,000 roving machine that, if you stretch your imagination, looks like a distant cousin to the experimental robot "Number 5," in the 1980s movie "Short Circuit." But Blitch's unglamorous versionminus a talking head and mechanical handswas used in Iraq by a bomb squad to analyze and disarm bombs.

Blitch's grown-up game also uses miniature aerial drones and water skimmers fitted with tiny acoustic cameras in a diverted career path that began 12 years ago when he found himself at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Blitch, a former army lieutenant colonel and Special Forces officer, once engaged in hostage rescues, both military and civilian.

But after a rare stretch of five back-to-back command tours in the early 1990s, he found himself "beat up and burned out," and in desperate need of a change.

Blitch, 47, plays down those missions as well, describing them as a collection of "so many screw-ups" that Uncle Sam sent him to graduate schoolto prevent more screw-ups through the use of technology.

"As one of my commanders said, 'The only reason people will follow Blitch around is to see what he screws up nextit's idle curiosity,' " said Blitch. "So they sent me to the School of Mines in 1993."

Thus, he found himself in a classroom learning computer analysis systems and dreaming of ways he might, at 35, become an astronauta passion since childhood.

Along the way, he developed an interest in robots, particularly small ones, in lieu of the larger styles being designed to explore Mars. Rovers that explored the surface without the flexibility to go deep below it, into the cracks and crevices in search of living organisms, seemed futile to Blitch.

He contended that the thin atmosphere and additional ultraviolet radiation on the surface of the Red Planet would drive any living things underground, and therefore small robots should be used to investigate that.

"I observed that need, and I passionately pursued it for the next 10 years," he said, even though his plans to become an astronaut took a different turn.

Space exploration was one application for small robots, but there was certainly moreapplications including military use behind enemy lines and search-and-rescue operations.

The latter of which became clear to him while he was in a class at the School of Mines on April 19, 1995. A student rushed in with news that someone had just blown up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City; scores had been killed, and officials were using robots to look through the rubble.

"Robots?" Blitch thought that day, as his mind wandered back 10 years to a time when he was stationed at Fort Sill and had stood in that same building himself, hoping to take a flight aptitude exam to transfer from the Army to the Navy to become a "fighter jock."

He approached his Mines adviser and asked if he could skip class and go therethe robot angle being a key point of interest.

"Don't let the door hit you in the ass," said the adviser, who believed that "real world" research and problem-solving skills superseded the classroom study of computer code.

"I came back from that with a wealth of lessons learned," Blitch said. "The robots were big, clunky, unwieldy, monstrous tanksbigger than humans. They were great for cutting a wire on a bomb, but as far as looking through the rubble (for survivors)no value."

Blitch had hoped to finish his doctorate after he was reassigned to a post in Florida in 1996. But his boss introduced him to an officer who was a proponent of robots. The officerwho would later rise in rank so significantly that he was in command of all special operations in the U.S. militarypulled Blitch from his staff job and placed him with research specialists in a start-up program developing miniature robotic vehicles.

The program got a lot of attention in Washington, D.C., as Blitch tells it, and Blitch himself was assigned to pass the "tin cup" before members of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to gather more funding for it.

Eventually, his passion for robots would land him a position at DARPA, where he ran a $50 million program in tactile robots from 1997 to Sept. 10, 2001.

When an important champion of Blitch's robotics program left DARPA, the program lost the necessary support to continue.

At the same time, Blitch became eligible to retire from military service, his wife asked for a divorce, and Blitch accepted a job with a large defense contractor in Denver that had a robotics division.

He had by then convinced individuals within DARPA to donate the robots for purposes of search and rescue, he said, and had made plans to start a nonprofit with the equipment as soon as he established himself in Denver.

Blitch is careful when describing his past life, to explain the important connections that led to his privately owned business on the U.S. 285 corridor called Blitz Solutions Inc., as well as the nonprofit arm that he calls the Alliance for Robot Assisted Crisis Assessment and Responsea predecessor of which dates back many years, he said.

On Sept. 11, Blitch climbed into his car, packed with his belongings, and began the drive from Virginia to his new job in Denver. That's when he heard about the terrorist attack in New York City. He turned the car around.

He called a good friend, Ray Downey, a New York City firefighter interested in robotics, who was tasked after the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center with training firefighters in special operations. But Downey didn't answer his phone that day, and he never would. He and his crew had already perished when the first tower collapsed.

Unable to reach Downey, Blitch was confused about how he might help. He stopped the car on the side of a highway to think, then gathered the nerve to head to Ground Zero without official contacts. He called roboticists and manufacturers with field-ready robots to supplement the robots that were donated by DARPA, and within six hours he was met by teams from nearby companies. Eighteen hours after the attacks, robots were on the rubble pile.

"Somebody got wind of this crazy colonel with robots," Blitch remembers. "They tried to find out what (military) unit I was with, but DARPA was not a unitI had a real tough time."

Shortly after, according to Blitch, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the director of DARPA and asked what kind of technologies the agency had to use in Afghanistan to search for Osama bin Laden. That director told his subordinates: "Get me Blitch."

In April 2002, Blitch received the Eugene Lawler Award for humanitarian contributions for leadership in developing and deploying robots during 9/11 search and rescue operations. The robots assisted the New York City Fire Department and federal rescue workers in finding the remains of victims where neither humans nor dogs could search. The award included a $5,000 prize.

During his time in Afghanistan, and also when he spent time at the North Pole testing man and robot along with NASA researchers, Blitch observed that certain people are more suited as operators than others.

"Over the years I have been able to come up with a sort of robot IQ," Blitch said. "Out of 100 people, I can tell you who the 10 best robot people will be."

The right combination makes an "enormously valuable" team, he said, and that awareness was one of the driving forces in starting his private venture in the summer of 2002. Blitch runs the for-profit business and a nonprofit component from his Morrison officea maze of rooms filled with a large number of remotely operated vehicles.

Blitch and his extended group of teammates, who operate from various areas, have with worked robots in caves in Afghanistan to search for trip wires that threatened Special Forces; and in projects back home searching for mold in the heating ducts of private homeowners.

He has worked on projects for oil and gas corporations off shore, has done vessel and pipe inspections and maritime security.

"We can fit into places that humans can't. We can fly (robots) through poisonous clouds or dive them into wreckage that is either too dense or too cluttered for humans to safely negotiate."

He provides assessment services for condemned structures; for insurance agencies doing post-disaster assessments, and in some cases his crews even mitigate disaster by temporarily plugging a leak on an oil rig.

In fact, Blitch is looking to train more specialized operators from his Colorado office to work on future missions. His next tryouts are planned for June 2007, and "athletic geeks" are among those he likes to test, though that is not an absolute profile.

"The robots are stupidwe need to compensate with highly skilled operators, and that is what makes us so unique."

It might seem risky to speak of the many robot applications when it comes to issues of war, but Blitch explains that once a particular technology has been used, it is no longer a mysterymore technologies continue to be developed for those purposes.

Blitch is writing a book about his involvement with artificial intelligence, and he hopes to soon complete a documentary. His path has been one of trial and error and political intrigue.

"My only claim to fame is that I screwed up, and that's OK," he said, recalling his days in the Special Forces. "As long as you are trying really hard, you have value; you are learning. What I haven't been doing a real good job of is sharing all these lessonsI am just starting to do that now."

To reach John Blitch, call 303-697-6936. Soon, he plans to complete a website with further information about his operations at
















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