New records obtained from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in December 2023 show that the number of drones licensed by government agencies has gone up across the Commonwealth. We’ve updated our interactive tool, which lets anyone explore the dataset and identify drones owned by public entities in their communities.

Search Government Drones in Massachusetts

Keep reading to see what we learned. 

In 2021, we published a report detailing data acquired by the ACLU on government agencies’ use of drones in Massachusetts. According to late 2023 data, it remains the case that almost half (43%) of active government drones in Massachusetts are registered to police departments. The Massachusetts State Police has the largest number of drones of any police agency in the state. 

In 2022, we published documents revealing police used drones to monitor Black Lives Matter protests in five cities in Massachusetts, including Boston. Video feeds from these drones were streamed in real-time to local police departments and the State Police “Commonwealth Fusion Center,” which shares information with federal agencies and out-of-state police entities.  

Protecting public safety?  

One of the most common drones registered by government agencies is the DJI Matrice line. Just one of these drones costs between $10,000 to $20,000 dollars. With 133 Matrice drones in operation in Massachusetts as of 2023, these drones alone likely cost taxpayers $1 to 2 million dollars.

Despite the hefty price tag, DJI drones – especially the Matrice and Mavic lines – have been prone to crashes. In August 2022, a police-operated DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise drone used to locate a suspect in the UK crashed into a building after its battery failed and it plummeted 130 feet. According to FAA documents, the Massachusetts State Police has registered eight DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise drones.

The DJI Matrice 210 drone is even less reliable. Reports of crashes were frequent enough that, in June 2020, the website urged Matrice 210 pilots to “not fly over any people,” echoing a warning from the drone manufacturer from 2018. Regarding the Matrice 210, a FAA-certified pilot and drone expert with the Wake Forest Fire Department reported in 2018 that “three public safety agencies … had batteries fail in flight.” In 2020, a Matrice 210 failed at 270 feet, crashing hard enough that a piece of the drone ended up “buried 8 inches deep.” Based on the DROPS standards, if a Matrice 210 drone were to fall on someone from just six feet or more, the injury would be fatal.  

These crashes are not due to pilot error but rather stem from known issues with the technology itself. Despite these problems, as of December 2023, Massachusetts government agencies had 58 active Matrice 210 drones.  

More drones, more money, more problems 

The December 2023 FAA data shows that across Massachusetts, the total number of drones registered by government agencies increased by 169 between 2021 and 2023. The Massachusetts State Police acquired 19 additional drones, amounting to a 25% increase in the department’s drone fleet. Likewise, the Norfolk County Sheriff’s Department, which had a single drone in 2021, had acquired 19 more drones by 2023. Four of these new drones were the Mavic 2 Enterprise drones, discussed above.  

Two years ago, we raised concerns that government entities, particularly police departments, were not doing enough to prevent the misuse of drones or drone footage. In 2022, Worcester City Council approved a request by the Worcester Police to purchase a $25,000 drone. The police department had come under fire from homeless advocates for using a drone to monitor people at encampments.  

While Massachusetts has no laws on the books regulating police use of drones, the ACLU of Massachusetts supports legislation that would ban the weaponization of drones and other robots. 

Search government drones in Massachusetts 

If you want to look at the data yourself, you can use our interactive tool, where you can explore the data or download the data in full.   

Search Government Drones in Massachusetts

If you’re interested in learning more about how government agencies in Massachusetts use drones, you can use our model public records request to find out. More information about this process and relevant resources are available here.