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Is it time to buy your kid a drone for Christmas?

FAA's drone do's & dont's

Topping Gabriel Gonzalez's Christmas list this year is not the customary video game or action figure usually seen on an 11-year-old boy's list. Instead, the Sayreville, New Jersey, resident asked his parents for a drone.

If he gets his wish, on Christmas morning Gabriel will be joining the millions of other drone hobbyists who have already taken flight this year.

"The biggest draw for drones is aerial photography and video," said Mike Blades, senior industry analyst for aerospace and defense at Frost & Sullivan.

According to Gabriel's father, Fernando, his son became interested in UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles, a few months ago after seeing YouTube postings of personal drone footage—everything from drones flying through fireworks displays and capturing aerial views of killer whales in British Columbia's Johnson Strait to police activity on the streets of California and kids surfing monster waves in Newport Beach.

A DJI Innovations Phantom remote-controlled drone
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

"With YouTube the kids see everything now, and my son sees kids flying drones," Fernando said.

"The market is blossoming because drones are now affordable," said Blades, adding that consumers worldwide will spend about $720 million on drones in 2014. This equates to 200,000 units sold each month. He expects spending to double in 2015, growing to $4.5 billion by 2020.

Prices vary from $25 to upward of $2,000, depending on the quality of the camera and the battery life, but "most hobbyists spend around $600," Blades said, adding that DJI holds 50 percent of the market, due to the popularity of its Phantom 2. France's Parrot and California-based 3D Robotics also claim strong sales, at about half of DJI's.

But even though drones are becoming so popular that Amazon has set up its own Drone Store—along with a link that instructs users how to "Fly Responsibly"—and Apple and Best Buy are also now carrying UAVs, many are fearful of the dangers drones could impose.

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This is according to a recent survey of 1,000 adults conducted by market research firm ORC International.

The survey revealed that 73 percent of respondents are concerned that drones could damage property by crashing into a house, and 55 percent are worried that drones could cause injury to people, like poking out an eye.

There are also privacy concerns: 78 percent of those surveyed believe that drones will turn America into a surveillance state, 60 percent said they will become the new Peeping Toms, 50 percent said they believe drones will be used to hack into wireless networks, and 34 percent believe drones will steal their possessions.

The market is exploding because drones are now affordable.
Mike Blades
senior analyst, Frost & Sullivan

Regardless, the FAA allows drones for personal use, as long as operators follow the rules set by hobby groups, such as flying below 400 feet, always within the operator's line of sight and away from manned aircraft and stadiums.

But even with all these precautions, the number of reported incidents involving personal drones is growing. Last month the FAA released a report stating the number of reported drone incidents "rose from fewer than 10 per month in March and April to 41 cases in both September and October of 2014."

Still, Blades believes that people will eventually warm to the idea and there will be a "level of acceptance."

"It's just like the Internet," he said. "Everyone was afraid in the beginning. There's so much good that can come from drones, and they will eventually see that. People will buy them because they will see others with them, and it will have a snowball effect."

As for Gabriel Gonzalez, his father plans to place strict restrictions as to how and where his son uses his drone.

"I think of it as child's play," Fernando said. "But I definitely don't want him to do anything that would attract attention, so I won't let him fly it by himself."