Trimble, which makes the UX5 (shown), was one of four firms granted approval by the FAA to use unmanned aircraft systems commercially.
Ian Allen Trimble, which makes the UX5 (shown), was one of four firms granted approval by the FAA to use unmanned aircraft systems commercially.

Today, four more firms—this time in infrastructure—were granted approval by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, for commercial tasks. The companies were exempted from a ban on the practice because their activities "do not pose a threat to national airspace users or national security," according to a FAA press release.

The companies are positioning-technology developer Trimble Navigation, Chicago- and St. Louis–based design-build contractor Clayco, and Dayton, Ohio–based civil engineering firm Woolpert, as well as offshore-drilling surveyor VDOS Global, who all petitioned the FAA for exemptions in order to use drones for such tasks as aerial surveillance and construction-site monitoring. All four agreed to operate units weighing less than 55 lbs. and to keep them within sight while in use.

Clayco petitioned to use a 10 lb. multirotor vehicle from San Francisco–based Skycatch for jobsite imaging; VDOS petitioned to use Aeryon Labs' 5.3 lb. SkyRanger for oil-stack inspections; Woolpert petitioned to use a 15 lb. Altavian Nova Block III to survey parts of Ohio and Ship Island, Miss., for industries including oil and gas, forestry, and land management; and Trimble petitioned to use its 6 lb. UX5 Aerial Imaging Rover for general aerial imaging.

So far, the administration has received 167 requests by commercial groups seeking exemptions to the UAS ban and, including today’s addition, has approved those of 13 firms. In September, the FAA exempted six aerial photo and video production companies whose requests were filed by the Motion Picture Association of America. That follows FAA approval in June of the first commercial UAS flights over land, granted to energy corporation BP and UAS maker AeroVironment, for their aerial surveillance of BP’s oilfield in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

Interest in drones is on the rise among architecture and construction firms for the equipment’s ability to access and scope out hard-to-reach or dangerous sites. Trimble and others are seeking to meet an impending commercial need for the product. The Sunnyvale, Calif.–based company’s UX5 was introduced in 2013 for mapping and surveillance at heights of up to 16,404 feet and flight durations up to 50 minutes.

A number of researchers and startups are also developing drones capable of jobsite and project surveillance, and the FAA has set up test sites across the country to evaluate new UAS technology. But commercial use of the products in U.S. airspace by firms without an FAA exemption is unlikely until at least 2017, the Wall Street Journal  reports, noting it as one of the drone mandates handed down by Congress in 2012 that the FAA has been slow to meet.