The drone settles on the cracked asphalt after a brief ascent into the suburban troposphere.
"Yeah, it flies," says Christopher Vo, director of education for the D.C. Area Drone User Group. He uses his thumbs to release the remote-control levers that animate his 3-pound, pizza-size vehicle.
"I want to give it a try just a few feet up," says the quadcopter's creator, who is inexperienced at the controls. That's Karl Arnold of Herndon, Va., a telecom sales engineer who got into drone building as a hobby.
Vo hesitates, then hands over the controls. "All right, everyone, step back," he says, looking at Arnold and then at the contraption. "It's your drone."
It is indeed his drone. Arnold built it 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 maybe for the betterment of society.
After all, we're living in drone-y times. Reports surfaced last month that Facebook is considering purchasing a drone production company. In December, Jeff 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 topographies across the United States.
At the drone user group gathering in Reston, Va., Arnold activates the four propellers, which make a sound like an electric weed cutter or 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.
"Have fun," Vo says. "Don't break it. Don't break other things with it." Then Vo heads back inside Nova Labs, a nonprofit "makerspace" hidden in a local office-park labyrinth.
At least one car parked outside the labs bears a bumper sticker that says, "My Other Vehicle Is Unmanned." Inside, the drone group's daylong building workshop is underway.
Thirty people crowd two small rooms with folding tables and every tool imaginable. They talk energetically 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 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 high school class project. She found the group online and connected Brahm in order to make sure the drone parts -- which average about $500 for a basic model -- are actually put to use.
"I didn't want them to be sitting around the house," she says before leaving. (She's one of just two women -- both mothers passing through -- who enter the labs during the workshop.)
Hovering nearby is high school sophomore Ken White, who is here for more 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 appearance, an opportunity to absorb the mechanics of civilian drone work so that he can integrate it into his own work. "My belief is you have to walk the walk and build a skill set," White says.
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, which gives experts and rookies a chance to learn, build and share best practices.
Other group events include regular "fly-ins," where members congregate on open terrain to launch their drones, and occasional competitions such as 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.
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 spectator might picture drones raining down Hellfire missiles on foreign wedding convoys, as was the case in Yemen, where a U.S. strike in December 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 in at the 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 civilian drone fleets being used 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 this 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, he continues. "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."