Adam Bannister

Editor, IFSEC Global

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Adam Bannister is editor of IFSEC Global. A former managing editor at Dynamis Online Media Group, he has been at the helm of the UK's leading fire and security publication since 2014.
August 24, 2017

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Anti-drone tech

How prison authorities are grappling with the rise of drone-assisted smuggling

Prison services are grappling with a growing phenomenon that didn’t even exist three years ago.

Intrusion by unauthorised drones accounted for 33 incidents at prisons in England and Wales in 2015 – a 1,550% jump on the two recorded in 2014. The year before that not a single incident was recorded.

In one particularly daring plot criminals used drones in a failed bid to flood prisons with contraband worth around £48,000.

A specialist team of prison and police officers has been set up to combat the problem. Law enforcement agencies and HM Prison and Probation Service will inspect drones recovered from jails in order to identify, track down and prosecute those involved in drone-assisted smuggling.

In footage obtained by the BBC below, surveillance cameras show a drone delivering drugs and mobile phones to inmates in a London prison in April 2016. An inmate grabs the goodies by reaching through the prison bars.

It’s a global problem.

A recent report from USA Today revealed that drones have been used more than a dozen times to smuggle contraband into federal prisons over the last five years.

In 2016, a recently released inmate and two accomplices were convicted of smuggling porn and drugs into Maryland’s Western Correctional Institution using a drone. The perpetrators reportedly earned about $6,000 per drop.

“Lethal items”

US prison management consultant Donald Leach told US Today that “traditionally some inmates would bribe the staff or visitors to bring drugs and other small items into jail illegally by hiding them in body cavities etc. But drones have opened up the possibility of transporting much bigger and much more lethal items like guns into the facilities.”

Correctional Service Canada, the federal agency responsible for management of Canadian prison facilities, recorded 41 drone-related incidents at federal prisons between July 2013 and December 2016. In four of those cases, the authority believes that contraband was successfully smuggled into the facility.

“Would it not be more effective to spread nets over the prisons and obscure sensitive areas from view?” Martin Grigg, director, CHQ

There are myriad ways of deterring, repelling, disabling or seizing drones. However, the problem is still so new that prisons around the world are very much in a trial and error phase regarding deciding on the best solution.

A prison in Guernsey recently became the first in the world to use an invisible shield to foil repel drones. The shield uses sensors to jam radio frequencies that return the drone to its sender.

Martin Grigg, founder and director of security consultancy CHQ, told IFSEC Global that: “Drones are an area of increased concern in that they present a new threat to prisons for both remote reconnaissance and delivery of contraband. Disabling a drone in a pre-defined area is relatively straightforward. A high-power directional microwave pulse will ‘fry’ its electronics and will ‘kill’ it in mid-air.”

But he outlines two legal problems associated with combating the problem, including “the law around damaging other people’s property and, more fundamentally, safety concerns. What do you do with 5kg of metal falling out of the sky?

“There are many health and safety risks associated with disabling drones. A falling drone could kill an innocent person. The technology that returns a drone to its last way-point is a good solution but it is not hard to imagine a drone that is not using ‘standard’ aviation navigation techniques.

“Lateral thinking may well be an approach to practical solutions. The basic starting point should be to keep it simple. For example, in the case of drones, would it not be more effective to spread nets over the prisons and obscure sensitive areas from view?”

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