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Virtually anyone, including major U.S. corporations and laptop pilots, may be able to get their hands on one. The most likely markets, analysts say, will include the agriculture and energy sectors.

“Think of industries that have large physical assets. Oil and gas pipeline owners can inspect their assets this way,” said Matt Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of the school’s Drone Journalism Lab, a first-of-its-kind project to study the increasing use of unmanned aircraft and its impact on privacy.

Beyond farmers and oil-and-gas companies, Mr. Waite said other potential customers for drones could include housing developers and news organizations, with the latter potentially leading to difficult decisions for journalists and their editors.

“What happens when there is a compelling public interest to something and the government is restricting access to it?” he asked rhetorically, raising the scenario of a newspaper or TV network using a drone to surveil past a security cordon or in military space. “Is there a First Amendment argument to using a UAV? I don’t know.”

While conventional aircraft such as airplanes and helicopters are used routinely for surveillance, analysts think unmanned drones likely will pose new problems.

Most are much smaller, enabling them to fly undetected. They’re also able to stay airborne for longer periods of time.

The most important distinction, analysts say, is their price, much lower than the cost of planes or choppers. The customer base for small drones thus may become almost limitless.

“Any range of people could want these, all the way down to an ordinary person who just wants a toy to play with,” Ms. Stepanovich said.