Construction companies are putting unmanned aerial vehicles to work overseas, or they are quietly conducting "hobby" trials domestically, at least until commercial use is legalized in the U.S.

John Myers, senior virtual design and construction engineer at Gilbane Building Co., Providence, says "We're back to the Wild Wild West," and also likens the regulatory atmosphere to the "Prohitibion era."

Since Myers can't fly legally for commercial purposes, he takes his drone up in a park behind one of Gilbane's project sites and flies as a hobbyist. "The info isn't for commercial purposes. It's just to start a conversation in the construction community," says Myers. "Is the resolution good enough? Is the fish-eye effect annoying? What could we do with this?"

Myers stresses the "hobbyist, not employee," distinction, but many stateside firms already use UAVs, while other U.S.-based firms, such as Merrick & Co., Greenwood Village, Colo., practice on projects abroad while waiting for U.S. skies to open.

"I see a lot of opportunity because it's a better way to collect data," says Bill Emison, Merrick's senior account manager for geospatial solutions. The firm has been doing airborne mapping for more than 10 years. Emison says Merrick sees UAVs as just another collection platform and applies the same technology, workflow and craft to using them as it does with planes.

"We want to optimize our workflow so that, when we can use this in the U.S., we'll hit the ground running," says Emison. But he says overseas work offers more than practice; it can offer excellent applications for UAVs. "They're great for hard-to-reach areas, such as in Colombia," says Emison. "You could bring in equipment to fly [manned missions], but it would cost a lot more." U.S. clients' pocketbooks are suffering, he adds. "Where it could cost $20,000 to $30,000 with a plane, I could do it for a couple thousand dollars with a UAV."

Others agree. "We use UAVs in the North Sea, Singapore, Australia and Africa," says Mark Klusza, vice president of measurement technology at UTEC Survey Inc., Houston. He has 13 systems flying, inspecting everything from wind turbines to oil rigs. But his focus is data, not the platform. "The game isn't the drone. The game is getting the data," he says. Using UAVs, it's easier to get the 3D data his clients want.

For example, UTEC uses UAVs to inspect flare booms on offshore platforms. Flare booms extend 100 ft over the water and are constantly alight, burning off excess gas. "Without the UAV, you have to shut down the flare and let it cool, then have a climber go up there and inspect it," says Klusza. But with a drone, UTEC can do corrosion inspection and damage inspection without shutting down. "Now we're talking about saving money—schedule, time, money," he says.

Because money is on the line, the U.S. will get motivated, says Nelson Paez, CEO of Dreamhammer, a Santa Monica, Calif., drone software developer with military customers that also offers a consumer operating system that makes drones easier to control.

"Consumer and rogue commercial use is moving fast," says Paez. One reason the Federal Aviation Administration is taking so long to write regulations is that it must not only consider rules, but its budget, he says. "How are they going to enforce those rules?" Paez adds. "I assume it's going to be very similar to how we have licenses for cars [and] traffic laws." Emison says his fear is that hobbyists will cause a big accident before the FAA implements its plan, and the fallout will stymie progress even longer.

"The FAA is getting a lot of pressure," Paez says.