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Drone for the holidays? That's raising concerns

Among this holiday season's hottest gifts may be drones, a trend that worries one top official at the Federal Aviation Administration.

Speaking at a recent industry conference, Rich Swayze, FAA assistant administrator for policy, international affairs and environment, warned of "a million drones under people's Christmas trees," according to Aviation Week. Swayze was quoted as saying his estimate came from "several sources." An FAA spokesperson didn't respond to requests seeking comment for this story.

Swayze's view is backed by Michael Blades, a senior industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan, who tells CBS MoneyWatch in an email that "the FAA's guess actually turned out to be fairly accurate." He estimates about 714,000 hobby drone sales and about 214,000 commercial drone sales for 2015 for a total of more than 1 million. Blades' forecast doesn't include toys that might fly without a camera or have a camera that takes still which will sell in the multiple millions during the holidays.

The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that U.S. drone sales will reach $105 million in 2015, a gain of more than 52 percent from 2014. CEA expects unit sales to approach 700,000 this year, a 63 percent jump from last year.

Manufacturers such as DJI, 3DR, Parrot, Yuneec/Horizon Hobby, have been ramping up production all year in anticipation of strong holiday holidays, according to Blades.

" I think making deals with retailers for Christmas has been the focus (Costco (COST), Sam's Club)," Blades writes in an email. "I wouldn't be surprised to see some marketing campaigns come out relatively soon, mostly on social media to keep the costs down."

Drones are also getting more affordable for the average person, which is fueling their popularity. Best Buy (BBY) offers a range of UAVs priced between $80 and $1,260. Apple (AAPL) also sells them, as do Walmart (WMT) and (AMZN).

Consumers can find value for the money, whether buying for themselves or as a gift.

Increasing drone use raises privacy concerns 02:27

"For $500, you can get a decent little machine that will fly around for 15 to 20 minutes and take selfie videos," Blades told CBS MoneyWatch. "A plethora of those kinds of aircraft are out there."

However, Swayze and other officials are concerned that many people who are buying drones don't know how to operate them safely.

Over the past year, one drone crash-landed on the White House South Lawn, and another was found a block away from the president's home. Drones also hampered efforts to fight wildfires this summer in California, and one nearly collided with a jetliner flying near New York's LaGuardia Airport.

Airlines for America, a leading airline trade group, has called on the FAA to step up its enforcement of drone regulations as reports of them operating dangerously close to commercial aircraft have skyrocketed, as have incidents of them operating in restricted areas.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a trade group representing the drone industry, also wants the FAA to crack down on errant operators and for the agency to finalize delayed regulations for commercial operators, which would require safety training among other things.

"Stricter enforcement will not only punish irresponsible operators, it will also serve as a deterrent to others who may misuse the technology," said AUVSI CEO Brian Wynne in a statement. "The FAA currently has the authority to levy hefty civil penalties."

In 2014, FAA officials received 150 complaints regarding encounters with drones, also called unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). That number has grown to more than 650 so far this year. The Association of Model Aeronautics, which represents drone hobbyists, claims the FAA's data is inflated and includes unrelated incidents such as UFO sightings.

People often buy a drone for fun, but they "don't understand that there is responsibility, and there are rules that you have to follow," AUVSI spokesman Tom McMahon told CBS MoneyWatch.

Drones can't fly over people, must operate during the day and stay in the pilot's line of sight. Still, consumer operators face no licensing or registration standards, though some lawmakers are calling for such rules to be enacted.

Updates story at 10:16 a.m. to add additional context on drone sales and forecasts for growth.

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