Like a lot of other new technologies, drones are deeply divisive, whether they’re deployed by the military in the Middle East or just buzzing around your local airspace. But they’re also increasingly prevalent — and now, one Plymouth County community wants to take its use of drones to new heights.
For now, the town of Hanover, Mass. has just one drone, and six employees cleared to fly it. But both numbers are likely to grow soon. This month, Hanover was cleared by the FAA to run its own town-wide drone program. Officials there say it’s the first such authorization in the state.
“With the fire department, the drone is a tool that we have in our toolbox,” Hanover fire chief Jeff Blanchard said.
Blanchard imagines drones making the public safe by going where town employees and their vehicles often can’t, such as the serpentine, tough-to-access North River.
“We’ve had incidents out there that involve people using watercraft, kayaks, canoes,” Blanchard said. “Sometimes, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where they are. So we envision being able to launch the drone, get up above the trees, take a look around, and find someone that’s in distress more quickly.”
And, Blanchard adds, drones also make it possible to find forest fires early, before they’ve had a chance to spread — meaning “less manpower, less time in the woods, less equipment possibly being broken.”
Town manager Troy Clarkson’s vision is a bit different. He imagines using drones to enlighten the public on issues of intense local interest, such as the ongoing renovation of Hanover’s 150-year-old town hall.
“We can fly, and we have flown, the drone around the building … to show [residents] their tax dollars at work, the progress of the construction,” Clarkson said.
But not everyone sees Hanover’s foray into drone use as an unalloyed good. Kade Crockford, who directs the ACLU of Massachusetts' Technology for Liberty Program, says Hanover still needs an official policy on drone use that dictates when police can use the devices and how the information they obtain should be handled.
“If I get a warrant to surveill you, and I end up catching activities of other people, the data retention and limitations side of the policy might want to restrict the use of that data,” Crockford said.
Crockford says Hanover has invited the ACLU of Massachusetts to help craft new drone guidelines, and that the organization plans to accept the offer. But she also argues that as drones proliferate, town-by-town solutions won’t cut it.
“We support legislation before the State House, called the Drone Privacy Act… which would require a warrant for law enforcement deployment of drones for criminal and intelligence investigations, and also ban outright the weaponization of drones in Massachusetts,” she said.
Such legislation has been proposed for years without becoming law, however.
In the meantime, the town of Hanover is assuring its residents that municipal drones won’t be used for nefarious purposes.
“We’re not flying over your houses, we’re not going over your little kids’ ball fields where they’re playing, we’re not flying over your backyards,” said Colleen Smith of Hanover Community Television, who’s widely regarded as Hanover’s drone pioneer.
“What we’re using it for, you’re going to be thankful we have it if you need it," Smith added.