Now, anyone can buy a drone. Heaven help us

WASHINGTON (TIP): Amateur photographers and Hollywood filmmakers turn to them for lush overhead shots. Geologists use them to look above the seas for oil-bearing rocks. Amazon executives are pushing to use them to plop packages onto doorsteps. But now drones — the unmanned flying vehicles the size of a pizza box — are also a favorite tool for more unruly groups: pranksters and troublemakers. As the price of drones has fallen and sales have risen, the machines have emerged as central characters in stunts from the puckish to the criminal.

In recent months, drone pilots have tried to smuggle contraband into prisons and disrupt sporting events at stadiums. Animal rights groups have turned to drones to stalk hunters as the hunters stalk wildlife. And in France, more than a dozen illegal flights over nuclear power plants have unnerved the authorities. The antics are forcing public safety officials to look at the air above them, generally thought safe and secure, as a place for potential trouble. And for groups pushing drones as legitimate business tools, the high jinks are an unexpected and unwelcome headache — one, they fear, that will bolster a push by regulators to keep a tight leash on the machines.

The Federal Aviation Administration has said that drones raise safety concerns, like running into people and planes. On Wednesday, the agency said it receives about 25 reports a month of drones operating near manned aircraft. The agency is expected to propose new rules for commercial use as early as next month. “It’s now in the hands of all types of people — good people, bad people, tricksters, pranksters, kids,” said Patrick Egan, a consultant on commercial drone projects and editor at sUAS News, a drone news site. “All hell is going to break loose as far as the shenanigans that are perpetrated with drones.”

For the most part, flying a drone is legal for recreational purposes, as long as operators follow a few guidelines, like staying below 400 feet. Declining prices — a four-rotor model with a mounted camera can cost as little as $500 — have attracted more buyers. Teal Group, an aerospace research firm, estimates the global civilian drone market to be worth $450 million this year, up 45 percent from last year.

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