Drone prison threat

Drug-smuggling drones: How prisons are responding to the airborne security threat

Avatar photo

Freelance journalist

Author Bio ▼

Tilly worked as a lawyer for 14 years before deciding she wanted to combine a career in law with freelance journalism. She has recently completely her post-graduate diploma at the London School of Journalism. Tilly is presently completing an internship with a property portal and is also working as a legal consultant. She has written extensively on the topics of property and housing, social justice and legal aid and the legal profession.
February 8, 2018


Whitepaper: Enhancing security, resilience and efficiency across a range of industries

In April 2017, the government announced a national initiative whereby the police and prison service would pool intelligence to stop drones flying in contraband items to prison inmates in England and Wales.

The government said these easy-to-fly, remote controlled aircraft were posing a real threat to security by increasing the supply of mobile phones, drugs and dangerous weapons entering our prisons. The new team would forensically examine the captured drones to try and find out who was flying them and what technical capability they had.

However, some critics have called this initiative a “red herring” to distract the public from the chronic problems of drugs and disorder in our prisons. So how far are drones causing a security headache to prison officials both in the UK and worldwide?

The evolution of drone tech

The drone market, ranging from low-cost consumer products to high-tech versions used for complex commercial applications, has grown rapidly in recent years. Estimated to be worth $552m in 2014, the market is forecast to be worth more than $21.23bn by 2021.

Originally used only for military purposes drones are now used for law enforcement, search and rescue, the film industry and countless other fields.

Inevitably, criminals have also spotted the potential of drones for achieving nefarious goals, including smuggling contraband into prisons.

Admittedly, prisons were already awash with contraband well before drones became available, with drugs in particular smuggled in successfully during prison visits, thrown over the wall or reaching inmates via bribed prison guards.

However, drones are something of a game-changer in terms of their ability to carry larger, more dangerous items over prison walls.

In the UK, as recently as 2012-13, there were no reported incidents of drones being used to smuggle in contraband

In the UK, as recently as 2012-13, there were no reported incidents of drones being used to smuggle in contraband and only two reported incidents in 2014. Just one year later and this figure jumped to 33 – a year-on-year increase of 1,550%.

In the same year in Australia, there were six such reported cases in New South Wales alone. In Canada, the federal agency responsible for prisons recorded 41 drone-related incidents at federal prisons between July 2013 and December 2016.

Type of drones being deployed by smugglers

The main type of drones used for smuggling contraband are quadcopters. Controlled by smartphone they have four arms, each with a motor and propeller. Two of the propellers spin in one direction and two in the other, which enables the drone to hover in a stable formation.

BBC footage of a drone delivery to HMP Wandsworth in 2016 (see below) shows a drone flying over the prison wall, carrying a black bag with a thick rope or wire. The drone then hovers very close to an open prison window, out of which a prisoner hooks in the bag with a piece of wood.

Drones also have the capability of dropping a contraband load at a fairly precise spot in the prison yard for later collection by an inmate.

Some in the criminal fraternity are now using small commercial drones to smuggle in illicit goods instead. A sophisticated UAV, capable of being precisely manoeuvred using GPS technology and carrying a payload of up to 1.5kg, can be brought for less than £1,000 and flown with minimal training.

In April 2017, two men were jailed in the UK for using such drones to deliver Class A and B drugs and iPhones to inmates in three prisons across Herefordshire. This was the work of an organised crime gang, rather than an individual, and the police estimated the total worth of the contraband at more than £48,000.

Anti-drone tech

Some methods presently used by prison authorities to deter contraband delivery are distinctly low-tech: barbed wire and nets on the perimeter fence, even birds of prey.

In March 2015, an attempt to fly a UAV into Bedford Prison in England was thwarted when the aircraft became entangled in barbed wire after it was apparently destabilised by the weight of its cargo. Many jails in Canada also drape nets over perimeter walls and fences to try and thwart such deliveries.

In Holland, the authorities experimented with specially trained birds of prey which can pluck a drone out of the air with their talons. However, they abandoned the trial because training them proved more expensive and complicated than anticipated.

Digital anti-drone solutions are also being developed.

Sky Fence creates a 600-metre shield above and around the prison that detects and then deflects drones

A new system called Sky Fence has been introduced at Les Nicolles prison on Guernsey, where about 20 ‘jammers’ have been installed on the perimeter and inside the jail. The system creates a 600-metre shield above and around the prison that detects and then deflects drones.

The jammers are sensors that disrupt the drone’s computer and blocks its frequency and control panel. The operator’s screen then goes black and the drone will be bounced back to where it came from for safety reasons.

Drone detection sensors are also being used elsewhere to send prison officials advanced warning of an incoming drone and the direction from which it is coming.

The prison authorities can then identify the package recipient and conduct an internal investigation. Prison officials can also use this information to track the drone pilot.


The number of incidents reported where drones have been caught trying to deliver contraband into prisons hardly suggests that the problem has reached epidemic levels – although who knows how many successful deliveries have gone undetected.

However, ongoing improvements in drone technology mean that as an absolute minimum, prison authorities and developers of anti-drone tech must become more sophisticated in their response if they’re to stay on top of this problem.

Related Topics

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
February 13, 2018 9:03 am

Or You can shoot it with a shotgun, it’s a much cheaper option and the drone won’t come back

Michael Barnwell
Michael Barnwell
February 15, 2018 2:47 pm

Unfortunately many anti-drone products on the market are little more than snake oil, easily defeatable or just ineffective to begin with; a fake burglar alarm box with an anti-drone sign might be the best deterrent, certainly for the price.

Innovate U.K. put out a call for prison anti-drone products, 10 companies have been selected so hopefully we’ll see more effective products coming along in the next 18 months.

cris du preez
cris du preez
February 16, 2018 2:53 pm

Im not interested in supporting drones to watch prisoners, surely we can use them for better things. come on stop wasting our time and energy, and bringing such a brilliant idea into “junk status”, rather highlight the watching of sport, viewing beautiful game scenes or anything other than just the horrid parts of life.

August 25, 2021 10:59 am

[…] if security staff constantly monitor the area, they can even interject when outsiders try to use drones to deliver illegal things to the inmates. Even in the most notorious prisons such as Attica, video […]