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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.'"
John 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
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
"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.
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
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
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
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 www.aracar.org.