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Chinese Drone Maker DJI Tackles Security Fears Amid Booming Market

Regulators have been struggling to come up with new rules for one of America’s fastest-growing hobbies.

SHENZHEN, China — Fans at the Super Bowl could be forgiven the occasional glance skywards to check for swarms of drones sweeping in like helicopters from the movie "Apocalypse Now." Such was the tone of paranoia in an urgent and much-ridiculed Federal Aviation Authority public service video on the eve of the game.

"Don’t spoil the game. Leave your drone at home," the FAA warned.

None appeared, but the game came at the end of a bad week for consumer drones. Regulators have been struggling to come up with new rules for one of America’s fastest-growing hobbies, which is raising serious issues of privacy, safety and security.

"We are working on more safeguards," said Paul Pan, product manager of DJI, the world's biggest maker of consumer and small commercial drones. "We never imagined things would move this fast."

Last week, a drone crash landed in the grounds of White House and another fell to earth near the Mexican border, overloaded with six pounds of meth.

Both were manufactured by DJI, a Chinese company based in Shenzhen, which had already been in discussions with the FAA and has now brought forward a software fix that limits where the drones can be used.

"We put the GPS locations of sensitive locations like airports — and now D.C. — into the flight controllers so that the platforms will sense when it is close to one of these no-fly zones and won’t enter the space," DJI’s spokesman Michael Perry told NBC News during a visit to the company’s headquarters.

"We are working with the regulators, finding out where we can’t fly, and simply closing that off with software," Pan added.

DJI was founded in 2006 in a dorm room at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology by Frank Wang, a graduate engineering student and radio-controlled flying geek.

"It’s the first time a Chinese company has created a brand new market that hasn't existed before," according to spokesman Perry.

The company now occupies ten floors of a modern Shenzhen office block where Perry showed NBC News what he called the company’s “museum.” The history on display covers just three frantic years of innovation.

Their latest pizza-box sized four-rotor helicopters — known as "quadcopters" — now carry powerful cameras able to rotate through 360 degrees, with the pictures monitored via smartphone or tablet. DJI has now joined with several software companies to create apps for the drones, including one able to create three-dimensional maps of the ground below.

Not surprisingly, the drones have attracted enormous interest from hobbyists, but also industries ranging from movies and television to surveying. U.S. firefighters have used a drone to help identify danger spots in a fire. And then of course there are the delivery ambitions of Amazon.

Even conservationists have been snapping them up. A team of students from Olin College of Engineering, in Needham, Massachusetts, is customizing a drone to hover over whales and collect samples of spray from their blowholes. The spray contains hormones that will help determine if the animal is stressed. They have christened the device "Snot Bot."

The UCLA football team has been using a drone for training — its unique overhead shots helping to analyze the team’s play. Though that didn't make the devices any more welcome at the Super Bowl in Phoenix on Sunday night.

Drones have even spawned a variation on the selfie — the "dronie" — a self-portrait shot from on high.

DJI now employs 2,800 people worldwide. It is a private company that releases little detailed commercial information, though by one estimate they have 70 percent of the global market and are now selling "tens of thousands a month," with the U.S. its most important market.

But there is downside: The FAA has been receiving around 25 reports a month of consumer drones flying near manned aircraft, and privacy concerns where dramatically illustrated last year when one exasperated New Jersey man blew his neighbor’s drone out of the sky with a shotgun.

For security officials there’s also the horrible specter of a potential drone-based terror attack.

While DJI hopes its software fix and more training for pilots will help ease the fears, it is the FAA that has been charged with the thorny task of drawing up new rules — balancing hopes and benefits with the threats from pranksters and troublemakers.