- Associated Press - Saturday, March 29, 2014

RESTON, Va. (AP) - The drone settles back on the cracked asphalt after a brief ascent into the lower reaches of the suburban troposphere.

“Yeah, it flies,” says Christopher Vo, director of education for the D.C. Area Drone User Group. His thumbs release the remote control levers that animate the 3-pound vehicle, which is the size of a large pizza.

“I want to give it a try,” says the quadcopter’s creator, Herndon resident Karl Arnold, a telecom sales engineer who got into drone building as a hobby. “Just get it up a few feet.”

“Right now?” Vo says, a bit incredulous. “Have you flown in the simulator?”

“For two minutes.”

Vo hesitates, then hands over the controls. “All right, everyone, step back,” he says.

“My car is right there,” says Frank Bi, a digital news developer for “PBS News Hour,” as he backs up toward a large trash bin.

“Mine too,” Vo says, looking at Arnold and then at the contraption he built in about nine hours over a couple of weeks. “It’s your drone.”

Arnold activates the four propellers, which make a sound like an electric weed cutter or a mutant wasp. He nudges a lever on the remote control, and the drone hiccups upward an inch, tilts back and skids on the ground. “OK, maybe I’ll wait,” Arnold says, humbled by the sensitivity and latent power of his creation.

“Have fun,” Vo says, heading back inside Nova Labs, a nonprofit “makerspace” hidden in an office-park labyrinth in Reston. “Don’t break it. Don’t break other things with it.”

Outside the labs, there’s at least one car with a bumper sticker that says “My Other Vehicle Is Unmanned.” Inside the labs, the drone group’s all-day building workshop is underway March 23. Thirty people crowd two small rooms with folding tables and every tool imaginable. They talk with great energy about the unmanned aerial vehicles in front of them, which are in various stages of assembly. There is buzzing and beeping and the odor of soldered wiring. Men walk in with plastic tubs of parts as if they’re meeting up in a friend’s garage to break things and make their mothers nervous.

Speaking of which, Leslie Shampaine arrives shortly after the 10 a.m. start to drop off her 15-year-old son, Brahm Soltes, who is building a drone for a class project at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. She found the group online and connected Brahm in order to make sure the drone parts - which average about $500 for a basic model - were actually put to use.

“I didn’t want them to be sitting around the house,” she says before leaving. (She’ll be one of just two females - both mothers passing through - who will enter the space March 23.)

Hovering nearby the high school sophomore is Ken White, here for higher-altitude reasons than a class project. White is an enterprise architect for the Department of Homeland Security.

“I’m on a mission, but it’s low,” he says, referring to the priority of his attendance, which is his way of absorbing the mechanics of civilian drone work so that he can integrate it into his own. “My belief is you have to walk the walk and build a skill set.”

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