ACM Eugene L. Lawler Award for Humanitarian Contributions within Computer Science and Informatics
USA - 2001
For his leadership in the prior development and rapid deployment of the urban search and rescue robots used at the World Trade Center disaster.
From Sept. 11 through Oct. 2, 2001, roboticists at the World Trade Center conducted the first known robot-assisted urban search and rescue (USAR) effort in the world. The response was organized by John Blitch, who has been working since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to develop intelligent robots for USAR and establish critical relationships with the fire rescue community. His efforts show that extraordinary vision and enduring personal and professional commitment can make a difference to society.
Blitch began working with robots for USAR after participating in the Oklahoma City bombing response, noting that no robots of the right size, characteristics, and intelligence were available for search and rescue. A graduate student on leave from the Army at that time, he changed his Master's thesis topic from planetary rovers to USAR robotics and obtained funding from the Army AIC to evaluate possible platforms. His graduate school efforts won him the National Institute for Urban Search and Rescue (NIUSR) High Lonesome Award. Upon returning to Special Operations Command and then later at the DARPA Tactical Mobile Robots program, Blitch directed efforts which developed many of the robot platforms that were eventually used at the WTC response. He also contributed funds to the AAAI and RoboCup Rescue robot competitions in an effort to expose and encourage researchers and students to the challenging USAR domain. In the meantime, he worked hard to establish relationships with key members of the USAR community, including Ray Downey, Chief of Special Operations for the New York Fire Department, who later died in the collapse of WTC Tower 2. Via these relationships, the rescue community, famously skeptical of new technology, began to accept the idea of robot-assisted search and rescue. These relationships completed the last link in the chain from research idea to robot in the field.
Upon moving to Colorado as Vice President and Center Director for SAIC's Center for Intelligent Robotics and Unmanned Systems (CIRUS), Blitch established the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR), a NIUSR center of excellence. When CRASAR became official on Sept. 1, 2001, DARPA donated the first generation of tactical mobile robots to CRASAR. Within 15 minutes of the second plane crash into the WTC, Blitch called all the roboticists and manufacturers with fieldable robots to supplement the donated robots as he drove to NYC from Washington DC where he left his household goods half packed for the move to Colorado. Within six hours he was met in NY by teams from near-by industry and 18 hours after the attacks, robots were on the rubble pile. Eventually more teams from the military and academia joined the effort under his direction. The robots assisted FDNY and FEMA rescue workers in finding the bodies of five victims in the first ten days in areas where neither humans nor dogs could enter safely. The robots allowed technical search teams to find the same number of victims in half the time of a manual search and in more dangerous or inaccessible locations. During the later weeks of the recovery, the robots were used around the clock by city engineers to inspect the structural integrity of basement and slurry wall structure, finding at least three more bodies.
Blitch's efforts have been steady and unselfish. In several instances, he made career decisions based on the impact he could have on USAR robotics rather than on future promotions. At the WTC, Blitch donated more than $20,000 of his own savings to buy support equipment and to pay for travel and expenses of the teams, none of which has been reimbursed. He was the only member of the CRASAR teams to stay for the entire duration (Sept. 11-Oct. 2), leaving only after the last robot had been broken. Both personally and professionally, he has made significant contributions to the theory and use of intelligent robots for USAR.