About 60 miles north of Boston, MA lies one of the nation’s oldest cities, Portsmouth, NH. The seaport community was established in 1623 and now has a population of around 21,000 people. As Portsmouth is a popular tourist destination, this population greatly fluctuates over the summer months when the city hosts a bevy of seasonal festivals and vacation rentals peak. Watching over the 16.8 square miles of Portsmouth is the combined effort of the Portsmouth Police Department and the Seacoast Emergency Response Team (SERT). When Robert Merner became the new Chief of Police in 2017 he also ushered in a new program to assist his police force, the Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS) unit.
The Portsmouth Police department has over 100 employees, 68 full time and 27 part time officers, along with civilian support staff members. After seeing the logistical difficulties of protecting some of the many events hosted in the city, Chief Merner realized his officers could use some help. The 2017 Halloween parade had around 10,000 attendees. The police department had officers posted on roof tops and set up a scissor jack tower to watch over the event, but it was still not an ideal situation. The parade convinced him that a drone would be a welcome addition to the team, so an application to the state was presented shortly afterwards. “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 stated. “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 Portsmouth Police Department was awarded a $69,638 federal grant to pursue a drone program, contingent of approval by Portsmouth and New Hampshire officials. The drones purchased would be utilized by the Portsmouth Police Department, other city departments like fire and rescue, and the 14 surrounding communities serviced by SERT. While awaiting approval for funding, the Portsmouth Police Department had an opportunity to test out how a drone can help their proceedings. Neighboring county
Strafford volunteered their drone program to help search for a person believed to be missing in the woods. The drone allowed the search team to undertake a wider search area in a record amount of time.
By the summer of 2019, the Portsmouth Police Department had received the generous grant and purchased 7 drones. As outlined on the police department’s website, “Each platform has different capabilities for which is dependent on specific operations. The Portsmouth Police Department operates the (1) DJI Matrice 210 with the Zenmuse Z30 and Zenmuse FLIR XT2 Cameras, (2) DJI Mavic Enterprise, (1) DJI Mavic Zoom, (2) DJI Mavic Air, and (1) DJI Mavic Spark.” The department also trained seven officers to be sure that each time a drone is in use it is piloted by one officer while two others provide additional situational awareness. All of the officers are FAA compliant and in possession of a Part 107 drone operator license. Anytime the drones are flown, whether for training purposes or an official mission, it is entered into a public log. The department wants it to be made very clear that the drones are being used to benefit officers and the community, but will never be used to encroach on a civilian’s privacy. They encourage anyone with questions or concerns to contact the sUAS Unit Supervisor, Lt. Chris Cummings.
Chief Merner said that once the unit has been fully trained they will begin to use that drones right away to update maps of the town. When a call is placed into the department, being able to respond to it quickly is of the utmost importance. For police purposes, the information supplied by sources like Google Maps is not always adequate. New construction and points of entry to public spaces changes too often. So the drones will be sent up to create 3D maps of areas like schools, parks, and other public spaces to give officers a detailed map to assist in any emergency situations. From there onward, the drones will be used for situational awareness, search and rescue, tactical deployment, visual perspective, scene documentation, and fire fighting.
With the drone program in full swing, the police department recently applied to use the remaining funds from the grant to purchase a van specifically for transporting the drone unit and any extra equipment needed, like spare rotors and batteries. With such a large fleet of drones, having transportation for them is critical, especially since they are to be made available to surrounding communities as needed. The department was granted permission to purchase a van for $30,000, providing the Portsmouth Police Department with a total drone operation. The officers of the sUAS Unit know that they are working with top of the line equipment that will help them serve the community to the greatest degree. “It’s an amazing tool to have that will save time and money and increase the safety of the public, firefighters and police officers,” Lt. Cummings said. “The purpose of them is to save lives and protect people.”