By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
In March, an inmate in Maryland was convicted of conspiring with two other men to fly drugs and other contraband into a maximum-security prison aboard a drone, reported the Baltimore Sun. The men were attempting to use the drone to drop packages of prescription narcotics, synthetic marijuana, pornography videos, tobacco and a cell phone.
James Deater, who was a Maryland State Trooper for 23 years, recently hosted a webinar, “Drone/UAV Threats to Secure Facilities” as part of American Military University’s Law Enforcement Webinar Series. This webinar discussed the threat of drones on secure facilities such as correctional institutions, critical infrastructure facilities and government buildings.
Threat of Drones to Correctional Facilities
Drones pose a new and major threat to penal institutions. “The biggest concerns with drones and prisons are the introduction of weapons like guns, knives, ice picks — anything that could cause harm to inmates or correctional officers,” said Deater. The second biggest concern is the introduction of illegal items and contraband. “Items such as drugs, tobacco and cell phones are small and light, so even drones sold in toy stores are able to carry those payloads,” he said.
Delivering a weapon, which is heavier, would require a more substantial drone, but those can easily be purchased on eBay or Amazon. In addition, there are many Internet-based stores that sell parts to build a do-it-yourself drone that can be spec’d out by someone with even a little bit of technical expertise, Deater noted.
How to Stop or Deter Drones?
Unfortunately, there is not a great solution to stop drones from dropping contraband into correctional facilities. Many webinar attendees asked about radar systems to detect drones, but Deater said such systems are very expensive and often only used by the military. Similarly, signal jammers, which are often cited as a way to block transmission of remote control instructions to drones and cause them to crash, are also expensive and interfere with cell phone signals. Many facilities do not want the liability of interfering with cell phone signals. For example, if a call was placed to 911 during an emergency and the signal could not go through, the facility might be liable for such interference.
[Related Article: Police Using Drones to Monitor High-Crime Areas]
Some correctional facilities have considered installing nets over prison yards as a physical layer of defense to prevent drones from dropping items. While this may prevent weapons from being dropped, the nets would have to be woven very small to prevent items like pills from entering the facility grounds.
Changing Policies and Training to Detect Drones
The best way to monitor for drones is to adjust policies and retrain officers. Correctional facilities must teach officers to be vigilant about the threat of drones. “Instead of just watching fences, gates and the ground, officers now have to turn their eyes and ears skyward to verify nothing is coming from above,” said Deater. This is no easy task. Drones are small and quiet; many are almost camouflaged when in flight.
In addition to changing how officers monitor prison grounds, there must be additional patrols of the outer perimeter of the facility. Most drones are likely to be launched away from prison property, so officers must be on the lookout for people lingering nearby. Officers should look for vehicles parked in empty business parking lots or in remote areas. While it may be difficult to identify drone operators, officers must keep an eye on the prison’s surroundings in an effort to thwart attempted drone intrusions, said Deater.
Another difficulty with identifying drone operators is the growing sophistication of drones. It will be easier to identify people operating less expensive drones because those devices must maintain a line of sight with the drone, which can only fly about 300 feet away. However, some mid-grade drones have autonomous flight capability. Operators can plot the course of the drone using Google Maps, program it to take off from a designated starting point, drop the payload at a certain location and altitude, and return to an end point – all without human intervention during the flight.
Threat of Drones Collecting Critical Intelligence
While the threat of delivering contraband and weapons to correctional facilities is certainly a growing concern, Deater said there are even bigger issues. “Drones can easily be used to gather critical intelligence about a facility,” he said. “Drones can be equipped with high-definition, 4K cameras that can collect information from a quarter of a mile off. They can quietly get a 360-degree view of the facility and all of its outdoor operational tactics.” Collecting information about a facility’s operations could provide a criminal organization with an ability to launch an attack or coordinate a large-scale breakout.
All Secure Facilities Must Educate Employees about Drones
All secure facilities, whether they are correctional facilities or government offices, must inform staff and employees about the potential threat of drones. “Each facility is going to have different concerns. Government facilities aren’t as worried about drugs and guns as correctional facilities, but they’re worried about drones collecting information about top-secret operations,” he said. Leaders must have conversations with all employees about concerns involving drones so if they see one flying near a facility, they know to report it rather than disregard it.
If you are interested in learning more about this topic and listening to the recorded webinar, please email JDeater@apus.edu. This webinar is considered law enforcement-sensitive, so please correspond using an email address issued by a law enforcement, military or government agency. If you would like to sign up to receive notifications when new webinars are announced, please complete this form.