Unmanned future: Drones to clean your gutter, tend to crops and take aerial selfies?


Christopher Vo, left, a PhD student at George Mason, who hosts the D.C. Area Drone User Group meet up workshop, remotely pilots an unmanned aerial vehicle. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

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 three-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 NewsHour,” as he backs up toward a large trash bin.

“Mine, too,” Vo says, looking at Arnold and then at the contraption. “It’s your drone.”

It is indeed his drone, which Arnold built in about nine hours over a couple of weeks, with help from fellow drone enthusiasts. They’re a niche group, for now, living in the world they think we will all be inhabiting before too long: using drones for fun and convenience, like any other toy or gadget, and for the betterment of society.

We’re living in drone-y times. Reports surfaced this month that Facebook is considering purchasing a drone production company. In December, Jeffrey P. Bezos, who founded Amazon and owns The Washington Post, made headlines by suggesting that Amazon could deliver orders by drone within five years. Three weeks later, the Federal Aviation Administration announced a multiyear process to study and test the application of unmanned aerial vehicles in the various climates and geographies of the United States.

At the drone user group gathering, 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. “Okay, 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 a Reston office-park labyrinth. “Don’t break it. Don’t break other things with it.”

Outside the labs, at least one car bears a bumper sticker that says, “My Other Vehicle Is Unmanned.” Inside the labs Sunday, the drone group’s all-day building workshop is underway. 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 women — both mothers passing through — who will enter the space Sunday.)

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 about 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 such as a search-and-rescue challenge scheduled for May, when organizers will stage a missing-person scenario and drone users will hunt for photographic aerial evidence.

The people gathered at Nova Labs 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, although users are aware of the public’s concern about privacy and safety as well as the FAA’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 work spaces. “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.”

The D.C. Area Drone User Group hopes to help figure out the rules, and it 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 start-up 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 among teenagers, PhD 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?” Druce asks Arnold as he leaves with his quadcopter. “You’ve stabilized?”

“Yeah,” Arnold says.

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

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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