Drones have been a problem in prisons for years, where they often smuggle contraband behind bars. But could they also have inmates? out of the prison by air transport over the walls? This is a concern expressed by federal prison officials in a new Justice Department (DOJ) report on the matter.
The report essentially provides an overview of how federal prisons are tracking and mitigating the threat from drones. Much of this is attributed to complaints about the bureaucracy involved in reporting drone incidents and the difficulty of identifying and implementing effective countermeasures for drones. The common realization is that drones will only be a bigger problem for prisons going forward and that the government is not doing enough about it.
“We found that the BOP [Federal Bureau of Prisons] is facing major and growing challenges to protect its facilities from drone threats, ”the report̵
At the moment, it seems that drones are only used to smuggle contraband goods. The report cites an incident in which a drone was recovered from a federal prison and contained a package containing “20 cell phones, 23 vials of injectable drugs, dozens of syringes and several packages of tobacco, including contraband.” The BOP only started tracking drone intrusions in 2018 and recorded 23 incidents that year. That rose to 57 incidents in 2019, but the report notes that this number is likely to be underestimated.
Going forward, however, federal prison officials fear that drones could be used for other, more nefarious purposes. Officials quoted in the report were concerned that commercial drones could be armed with explosives and used to attack (a tactic used by some terrorist groups such as ISIS) and that future drones could be used to help inmates escape from prison enable. (Incidentally, in the report that journalist Brad Heath first spotted on Twitter.)
“BOP officials told us that future devices may even have payload capabilities that could allow an adult to be lifted out of prison,” the report said. “Given the trends in the industry and the observed incidents of drones in prisons, the threat from drones to BOP facilities is likely to increase as drone technology advances.”
While the idea of getting someone out of jail with a drone sounds awesome, it’s actually not impossible. Some drones are certainly capable of lifting people, and a number of enthusiasts have built their own DIY airplanes to do just that.
However, these types of payload functions are not cheap or accessible. One reason drones are used to smuggle contraband is because the equipment can be bought for a few hundred dollars. However, creating a drone that could carry a human would cost a lot more and require a lot of technical expertise. The drone would also be loud – that’s equivalent to using a small helicopter for an escape. Anyone planning an outbreak will likely look to more conventional methods first.
Aside from the drone’s airlift, the DOJ is still stepping up its countermeasures. According to the report, the DOJ and BOP are “at an early stage in researching and evaluating a variety of technologies and solutions that have both positive uses and anti-drone capabilities”. As of February 2020, the federal government granted the BOP $ 5.2 million to buy drone detection and mitigation systems, but it says it wants more.
However, the report is also skeptical about the effectiveness of these tools. It should be noted that “many counter-drone technology providers offer unproven capabilities or results that may only be achievable in a controlled environment.”