They come in all shapes and sizes, with profiles that belie their presence. They transport contraband—from cell phones to drugs to weapons and explosives. They have the capability to execute an assassination.
At the close of 2015, the number of drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles, were estimated to be 2 million sold, up from an estimated 1 million the previous year.
Exacerbating the issue, though the FAA has required that owners register their new acquisitions, these powerful devices are often going unregulated. The airborne devices can be controlled with a smartphone app from a remote location, far from the user. And they are the perfect contrivance to pass over a razor-wire fence and land unaware in a prison rec yard.
And last year they did. Though only a few actually have, they make news—and have potential for tremendous damage. In December 2015 a drone made an illegal delivery to the Rivière-des-Prairies prison in Quebec, which sits on the Eastern edge of Montreal island, according to a report in Quebec newspaper La Presse. Sources who spoke anonymously to La Presse said the drone dropped a handgun in sector S-2—which houses the prison’s convicted mafiosos and biker gang members—and the prison didn’t find out about the delivery until a day later, said the webzine, Vice News, on December 14.
The prison had to be searched by officers called in from nearby jails wearing bulletproof vests, while all prisoners were locked down in their cells. The prison houses some of the most violent in the province.
In another account, contraband seized last August inside the medium-security unit at Collins Bay Institution, also in Canada, was dropped into the prison courtyard by a drone, according to the newspaper the Whig-Standard.
Institutional value of the seizure was $13,500, according to a release sent out by Correctional Service Canada. A lockdown was ordered for an exceptional search of the institution, which lasted almost a week.
In another breach last July, a drone dropped a package containing 144.5 grams of tobacco, 65.4 grams of marijuana and 6.6 grams of heroin into the prison yard while inmates were outside at the Mansfield Correctional Institution in Ohio.
The drop sparked a fight among 75 inmates over the contraband. Guards had to use pepper spray to quell the skirmish.
Authorities in Maryland managed to thwart a drone delivery last August when they stopped two men in a vehicle on a side road that runs alongside the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland. CNN.com reported a tweet from the state agency that apparently showed the bounty: packets of K2 (or synthetic marijuana), tobacco, suboxone, pornographic DVDs and a handgun laid out next to the miniature aircraft.
And in October a drone delivery was foiled by staff at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester after it crashed into razor wire surrounding the prison. It was carrying two 12-inch hacksaw blades, drugs, a cell phone, cellphone battery and two packs each of cigarettes and cigars.
While these occurrences are actually rare thus far, the cases are growing and industry experts say that prisons should be concerned.
A ‘Game Changer’
Brad Dangerfield, founder and CEO of Industrial Camera Systems, the maker of radar tracking system SS-130 and the Axis Q6000-E says: “Drones are a game changer. We must prepare our cities for UAVs.” In addition to smuggling contraband into prisons, he points out they also smuggling drugs over borders and performing espionage on companies. And their looks belie their purpose. They look like birds, he says and some even behave like birds; thus, even if you look up into the sky to scan for one, you may not know it’s a drone.
In fact, hundreds of companies are building drones, Dangerfield says. The numbers of consumer drones being built are “sky high—triple the number in 2015 he estimates.
The lowest hanging fruit they pose is observation, as most are pre-equipped with a camera.. “The other side is way more insidious and way more dangerous—in prisons or on the border—they are equipping them to carry payloads—weapons, drugs and, by far, the cell phone is the biggest contraband. New gas-powered drones will be able to carry more payload and go further.”
Most think of drones that fly, Naboulsi furthers, but he urges us to think more three dimensionally. The terrorist group ISIS, for example, uses ground-based drones, and an underwater drone could be used to assassinate someone swimming in the ocean, he says.
The overwhelming part of the problem is awareness, he continues. A prison must be aware of a drone, not as it is landing in the yard, but at a distance, and should be on the alert for it. Thus a security camera can provide an alert once the UAV lands in the yard, but by then it may be too late.
Last November, the Federal Bureau of Prisons acknowledged the seriousness of the problem when it issued a Request For Information seeking information about technology that could detect unmanned air vehicles, track them, and bring down or disable them, reported Nextgov.com.
In its Request for Information, BOP’s Office of Security and Technology noted that drones “have presented a new and evolving threat.” For instance, small machines weighing less than a pound could take aerial photographs of prison facilities, and larger ones could carry at least 20 pounds of contraband, according to the notice.
Various detection methods
Detectors work using different technologies—and all are not created equal, caution the makers.
Detectors can operate by employing radio frequency, audio, video, thermal, radar and other technologies. Those that use more of the senses will provide better detection, the experts we spoke with concurred.
Some of the most basic begin with audio alone. Dangerfield says that audio can scan up to about 40 meters and doesn’t require a line of sight. (He adds that some audio vendors claim 300 meters—but this requires a directional microphone pointed directly at the target.)
Video can detect up to about 100 meters. It uses a form of facial recognition to identify the drone and is indistinguishable beyond that distance. RF can detect further—up to 1,000 meters and it doesn’t require a line of sight. RF is the most logical starting point, in Dangerfield’s view. “If the drone is behind some trees we will still see it. That’s the beauty of RF—it provides the most distance and most benefit hands down.” In field tests he conducted he reports that “RF solution detected up to a kilometer, and got up to two kilometers in the ocean.”
Thermal detectors are best for the new gas-powered drones, he adds. And radar provides much further distance—3 to 6 km—and it also provides GPS coordinates, but it requires line of sight, which is easily lost with a low flying drone.
But Dangerfield makes a case for actually being able to see the intrusion. “Video is very critical,” he emphasizes. With video, prison officials can see what the dropped object is and they can search for it. With detectors that operate on sound alone or frequency pattern alone, it is impossible to see what contraband was actually dropped, he notes.
Corrections officials can choose to be alerted in a number of ways, say the experts—via email, text message or a push message over the net as well as integration into their security system. They can receive live video from the tracker, says Lamprecht. “They can get an alert [regarding an incoming drone] in real time, and go out and watch for it.”
Drones are only getting bigger and more sophisticated. A device released in January by a Chinese maker in fact can carry a payload of 100 kg (roughly 200 lbs.), Dangerfield says. With it, an escape could be planned in quite an efficient way, he notes. “There’s no need for the prisoner to tunnel out.”
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