Portsmouth, N.H., Police Want to Use Federal Grant to Purchase Drone

A nearly $70,000 federal grant would allow officials to purchase a drone for the department, but the city and state need to approve it first.

by Elizabeth Dinan, Portsmouth Herald / September 25, 2018
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(TNS) PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- The Police Department is expecting to receive a $69,638 federal grant to buy a drone which, Police Chief Robert Merner said, will be shared with other city departments and the 14-community Seacoast Emergency Response Team.

In a Sept. 17 letter from the state Department of Safety, Merner was notified the Homeland Security grant is "prospectively" awarded to purchase an "unmanned aerial surveillance vehicle." The letter notes that after the grant is accepted by Portsmouth officials, approvals are needed at the state level, then the funds will be awarded in October.

The chief said the drone can be used to locate missing people and protect the public, but will not be used to invade privacy. He reminded Portsmouth is a destination for many large-scale events, including political protests and presidential visits, which could benefit from drone capabilities.

At last year's Halloween parade, the chief deployed a scissor jack tower and posted officers on rooftops to watch over the 8,000 to 10,000 people who attended. Merner said those measures were taken to watch for possible threats and a drone would add a mobile bird's-eye view.

"Given the traffic of people on foot, on multiple streets, the agility and capability of a drone before and during an event such as this would have provided significantly more protection capabilities to command staff," the application for the grant stated about the annual Halloween parade. "A drone has high resolution, real-time video and recording capabilities that provide a 400 ft+high/3-mile view that can be used to detect suspects and threats. This technology would vastly improve protection at Seacoast events, SERT call-outs, and protection of critical infrastructure."

The chief said when police were looking for a person last week, later found deceased by suicide in woods off Route 33, a drone was borrowed from neighboring Strafford County. He said it allowed investigators to cover more ground faster, critical accomplishments when people are missing. If police are called to respond to an armed suspect, Merner said, the drone could provide information without putting officers in harm's way.

The police chief said the first assignment for a new drone will likely be for mapping schools and other public buildings in 3D models noting access and egress points. He noted Google maps are generally out-of-date for police purposes, especially in a city like Portsmouth, where infrastructure rapidly changes.

The chief said the Planning Department could use the drone for mapping and the Fire Department can use it for active firefighting, as well as prevention planning. The police chief said officer James Noury has been trained to use a drone and two additional officers will also receive the training. Merner said the FAA has declared the entire city of Portsmouth as a restricted flying zone and federal permission must be granted before any drone is activated.

"During a live event, a deployed drone's optic capabilities allows an operator/command staff to scan and zoom in on the disturbance and surrounding area, providing valuable information that might not be able to be seen in totality by those on the ground," the police application reported. "The information provided to all public safety, medical, and city/town/state personnel for the best placement of assets, in real time, would ultimately save lives and protect property from further threats, and target where the most important repairs need to be made to restore primary services, if damaged."

The Police Department in its application for the federal grant reported the city has a population of 21,000, which grows daily to an estimated 45,000 for employment purposes. During the spring/summer/fall seasons, when there are over a 100 events held, the population exceeds 100,000 at times, police reported.

"Several of our SERT communities also experience similar population expansions, for example those with beaches," the grant application reported. "This program would benefit youth, the elder community, those with disabilities, and culturally-diverse communities in similar ways."

Notice of the federal funding for the drone is scheduled to go before the Police Commission during its Sept. 25 public meeting which begins at 5:30 p.m. in the Eileen Dondero Foley chambers of City Hall.

©2018 Portsmouth Herald, N.H. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.