How Prisons Can Combat Drone Threats

While Amazon – the American ecommerce retail giant – might have to wait a little longer before it can deploy its drone delivery program, Amazon Prime Air, drone deliveries is a reality prisons around the world are facing today.

A New Frontier

As long as there have been prisons, there have been people finding new and inventive ways to smuggle contraband inside. From Hollywood’s favourite trope of smuggling files into jail cells in baked goods to melting drugs into artwork, combatting the problem of smuggling is nothing new to jails and prisons around the world.

However, attack and infiltration by air is a new threat. Most prisons have elaborate security provisions on the ground – everything from razor wire, guards, security cameras, and more, but all of the space from the fence up is vulnerable to penetration by drones.

The drone market is growing at an exponential rate with experts estimating the market to reach $105.2 billion worldwide within the next four years including commercial, consumer, and military markets. The use of drones can range from aerial photography, crop monitoring, journalism, cinematography, border security, tactical reconnaissance, and criminal applications.

Prisons around the world have been noting incidents with drones smuggling contraband for the last few years. With the number of drones entering the market skyrocketing, it’s only a matter of time before prisons begin to experience these incidents with increasing regularity.

It’s a Global Problem

From the United States to the United Kingdom to Australia to Russia, prisons have reported altercations between prisons and drones for at least the last seven years.

Drones have been caught trying to drop off drugs, weapons, cell phones, cigarettes, porn, and weapons. Drones have also been documented hovering above prisons to perform escape route surveillance. Objects dropped by drones and gathered by inmates pose a serious threat to other inmates as well as the prison staff and employees.

Perhaps one of the first such incidents was in 2009 when a toy helicopter was used to make an ultimately unsuccessful drug drop in a UK prison. Two years later, staff at a Moscow prison confiscated 700 grams of heroin dropped by a drone. Western Australian prisons have been struggling with drone security as well. At Wooroloo Prison Farm, a minimum-security facility, accomplices used drones to deliver bundles of drugs to inmates at a housing pod repeatedly.

Just last year, a riot broke out over a package a drone dropped at Mansfield Correctional Institution, a prison in Ohio. Only a few months later, a drone was discovered dropping mobile phones, drugs, hacksaw blades, and other materials into a prison in Oklahoma.

In a New Era of Prison Security Necessities

Prison staff have always been vigilant about screening for contraband brought into prisons by visitors, employees, and even mail deliveries. Although smugglers can get very creative, generally the countermeasures were straightforward and easy to implement. A common technique in the past to breach walls have been tennis balls filled with illicit items – most commonly drugs – that are thrown over the prison fences to a waiting inmate.

Drone pose new difficulties. Drones can move quickly, hover, and make evasive manoeuvres. A remote pilot controls them from afar, which means the accomplice can more easily stay hidden and out of reach of prison officials.  

Officials at the Mansfield prison only realized the riot at their prison was spurned by a drone after the fact when they were reviewing surveillance video footage while investigating the fight and saw the drone on camera. 

Countermeasures For Prisons Against Drones

There are many different countermeasures that prison officials can take to combat attacks by air depending on what the situation calls for. These include:

  • Utilising drone detection sensors, such as DroneShield’s long range sensors and near range omnis. This way, the prison officials receive an advanced warning of an incoming drone, and the direction where it comes from, which enables them to observe the identity of the package recipient and conduct an internal investigation. They can also use this information to track the drone pilot.

  • Tracking the drone back to its pilot – using DroneShield’s DroneGun jammer (in the RF-only mode) will trigger the drone to fly back to its point of origin, enabling pilot tracking.

  • DroneGun could also be used to bring drones out of the sky before they can drop their packages via a vertical controlled descent (when both RF and GPS functions are utilised).

With jammer deployment, prison authorities need to be aware of the legislation. For example, under the current US legislation, state and local authorities may not deploy jammers.

DroneShield’s detection sensors work by a proprietary system which separates drone sounds from background clutter, and matches against a proprietary library of acoustic signatures. When a match is found, the system sends out an alert by text, email, or through an existing alarm system via an API.

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