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The drone could fit in the back of a sport utility vehicle. It was hand-launchable. It came equipped with a downward-facing high-resolution camera and a tablet computer controller — just pull up a map and touch the screen to tell the vehicle where to fly.

“My jaw dropped,” Mr. Waite said. “I thought of every single fire, flood, hurricane and tornado I had covered. I went to the sales guy and said, here, take my money, how do I take this thing home?

“He said it’s $65,000 and it’s illegal in the U.S. So I put my credit card away. But it was amazing, and I could not shake the thought of it.”

Four months later, Mr. Waite founded Nebraska’s Drone Journalism Lab, the first of its kind in the country. In January, his brainstorm was bolstered by an inadvertent proof of concept: An amateur drone pilot in Texas captured aerial footage of a “river of blood” flowing from a Dallas-area meatpacking plant, prompting public outrage and a criminal investigation.

“That’s investigative journalism, and you don’t need something like a Predator for it,” Mr. Waite said. “A small [four-rotor] copter with a video camera will let you cover a house fire, a local flood. … All I need is to be able to do this for a commercial purpose — change the law, and I’m in the ballgame.”

Eyes in the sky

Ms. Cummings is on sabbatical in the Washington, D.C., area. Back on MIT’s Cambridge, Mass., campus, however, she makes a habit of closing her office blinds.

“My students want to drop a drone out of their [class] window and have it fly up to my window and peek in,” she said with a laugh. “They haven’t done it yet, but there’s no question in my mind that they could. And I’m not nearly as worried about that as a little robotic bird that sits on a branch outside my window. That is much more subversive.”

In December, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report on law enforcement drone use that called for updated privacy laws and warned that the nation was on the verge of moving “a large step closer to a ‘surveillance society’ in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities.”

Mr. Singer said he recently spoke with a federal district judge who believes there soon will be a Supreme Court case involving drones and Fourth Amendment rights.

“This is very powerful technology, and can be very useful for the police and emergency workers,” said Jay Stanley, the co-author of the ACLU report and senior policy analyst with the organization’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project. “But it also has big privacy implications. Communities need to discuss and decide what kind of balance they want to strike here. It should not be decided by procurement policymaking in which the police just buy [drones] and start flying them around.

“We think police drone deployment should be limited to emergency situations, or when they have reason to believe they will uncover evidence of wrongdoing. We’d also like to see limits and protections placed on how images of innocent people going about noncriminal business are handled and processed.”

Safety is another concern. Two years ago, the Navy briefly experienced a loss of communication with a 3,000-pound robotic helicopter that was flying toward the nation’s capital; when the drone did not immediately return to its airfield according to programming, military officers reportedly considered shooting it down.

And a prototype drone being tested by Houston-area police last fall crashed into a SWAT team armored vehicle during a planned photo-op. No one was harmed and the impact reportedly caused about only $90 of damage — but generated a slew of embarrassing national headlines.

“What can go wrong?” Mr. Waite said. “Well, there’s a very basic principle called gravity. And it always wins.”

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