- 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.”

The D.C. Area Drone User Group is the largest of its kind, with nearly 1,000 members, and the monthly workshop is an open forum for experts and rookies to learn, build and share best practices. Other group events include regular “fly-ins,” where users congregate on open terrain to launch their drones, and occasional competitions like a search-and-rescue challenge that will be held in May, when organizers will stage a missing-person scenario and drone users will hunt for photographic aerial evidence. It’s a niche group, for now, living in the world they think we will all be inhabiting before too long: drones for fun and convenience, like any other toy or gadget, and for the betterment of society.

The people here at Nova Labs on a Sunday morning are hobbyists who get a kick out of extending their reach to the sky as well as businessmen who see a golden opportunity to robotically monitor agriculture or deliver products. Think of the drone possibilities for wedding photography and videography, they say, although the average news consumer might picture drones delivering hellfire missiles into foreign wedding convoys, as was the case in December in Yemen, where a U.S. strike by an unmanned aerial vehicle killed more than a dozen revelers.

“You hear the word ‘drone,’ and everybody has that military connotation,” says Ken Druce, an avionics systems engineer from Leonardtown, Md., who makes the drive to Nova Labs several times a week. “There’s no delineation between the light quadcopters here and the 100-pound drones” made by private contractors for military surveillance and offense. “The applications are different.”

Suffice it to say that none of the devices (or people) here at Nova Labs look threatening, though users are aware of the public’s concern about privacy and safety as well as the Federal Aviation Administration’s attempts to regulate the use of personal drones. Drone technology still has some maturing to do, and its relationship to telecommunications and aviation needs to be streamlined and solidified, says telecom executive Peter Lewis, who dropped into the Sunday workshop as a self-described drone novice interested in commercializing the technology.

“Is a drone going to drop on people’s heads on K Street during rush hour?” Lewis says, a notepad in hand as he meanders between workspaces. “Is it going to disrupt a symphony at Wolf Trap or buzz a funeral at Arlington Cemetery? That’s what’s going to give this thing a black eye, unless we all figure out these rules of flying.”

We’re living in drone-y times. Earlier this month, there were reports that Facebook is considering purchasing a drone production company. In December, The Washington Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos, made headlines by suggesting that Amazon could deliver orders by drone within five years. Three weeks later, the FAA announced a multi-year process to study and test the application of unmanned aerial vehicles in different climates and geographies of the United States.

“We have successfully brought new technology into the nation’s aviation system for more than 50 years, and I have no doubt we will do the same with unmanned aircraft,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in a statement at the time.

America will move at its own deliberative pace, and the D.C. Area Drone User Group will continue to bring the curious into its fold and fantasize about using civilian drone fleets for everything from crop dusting to crisis mapping.

“I think probably one in five people will have their own drone” eventually, says the group’s president, Timothy Reuter, who is leaving his government job next month to focus on his drone startup company. “It’s going to be a great accessory for people who want to have a system to automatically check their gutters or to document their lives. I can see people doing aerial selfies. It’s an extension of that same philosophy: Let’s see the world and document your adventures from a new perspective.”

The collaborative energy in Nova Labs between teenagers, doctoral students, federal technicians and robotics junkies feels like a preview of communal tinkering on a much larger scale. Imagine, for a moment, a world in which we have ceased staring down at our smartphones and started looking up all the time at that buzzing airborne extension of ourselves.

“Did you get up flying?” Ken Druce asks Karl Arnold as he leaves with his quadcopter. “You’ve stabilized?”

“Yeah,” Arnold says.

“Good. I’ll see you after your next crash.”


Information from: The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com

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