The Bulletin Board

Lawmakers hold up funding for state-owned drones, citing privacy concerns

By: - April 18, 2022 1:29 pm

Department of Safety officials address the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee on Friday over a proposal to buy 25 new drones to assist in disaster response. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)

A request by the New Hampshire Department of Safety to buy 25 drones for disaster situations has been put on hold for a month, after lawmakers in both parties raised privacy concerns.

At its April 15 meeting, the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee voted unanimously to table the federally funded request, asking for the department to return with more details ahead of the next meeting in May.

The department had asked to spend $188,314 in federal “pass-through” funds to buy unmanned aircraft system (UAS) platforms, also known as drones, to be used in disaster response efforts to augment the state’s existing helicopters and planes. 

The department currently has two larger unmanned aircraft, purchased in 2018. The 25 drones would be smaller and better for quick operations, said Sgt. Chris Storm, special enforcement unit commander for the aviation unit of the State Police, in remarks to lawmakers. 

Helicopters and planes are often used for missions, including “overhead damage assessment, reconnaissance, and missing person searches,” the department wrote to the committee. “However, with the advancement of UAS systems, there is an opportunity to perform many conventional aerial missions in a safer, more expeditious, and cost effective manner,” the department added.

Storm said the purchase would help in the aftermath of vehicle accidents because the drones could fly closer to the ground than manned aircraft.

But lawmakers said more information was needed about how the drones would be used before they would approve the purchase. Storm promised to provide lawmakers with the department’s policy on Friday. 

Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat, said she wanted guarantees the aircraft would not be used for surveillance purposes. Rep. Jess Edwards, an Auburn Republican, agreed. 

“I echo the concerns about privacy,” Edwards said. “I’m really glad that you guys have a policy, and I’m looking forward to reading it when you provide it to the committee.”

Storm said that the department would be in compliance with Part I, Article 19 of the state constitution and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, both of which prevent unjustified searches and seizures. 

He added that the department was not planning to use the flyovers for surveillance, but that officials would apply for a warrant if they did decide to do so, with exceptions for “exigent circumstances.” The resulting video would not be retained “unless it is needed for prosecution,” Storm said.

Storm and Steven Lavoie, director of administration at the department, said the use of the drones would be regulated by a chain of command that would ultimately report to Storm.

The committee will next meet sometime in May. 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.