Space & Innovation

Officials Scramble to Clamp Down on Drone Use in Prison Smuggling

A special task force in the UK aims to thwart quadcopter deliveries of drugs, phones, and other contraband.

For several years now, law enforcement authorities have been fighting back against the rapidly accelerating problem of drones flying contraband into prison yards. It seems that inmates are getting special deliveries — drugs, cell phones, even guns — from outside confederates using hobbyist quadcopters and standard commercial UAVs.

In the US, the number of reported incidents has been on the rise, with some rather dramatic details leaking out to news organizations. For instance, just last year, a riot broke out at an Ohio prison when a drone dropped several bags of heroin into the exercise yard. Authorities have tried using nets and fishing lines to stop the smuggling operations, and there are several commercial anti-drone technologies now available to the prison industry. 

It's a growing concern all over the world, actually, but authorities in the UK announced a special task force to combat the problem.

According to UK Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah, the task force will bring together local and national law enforcement agencies to work with HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), Britain's federal agency.

All indications are that the new crackdown will be a no-nonsense initiative. Of course, prison officials are no-nonsense people, as a rule. But still, today's sternly worded announcement appears to indicate a significant commitment from the government.

“My message to those who involve themselves in this type of criminal activity is clear; we will find you and put you behind bars,” Gyimah said in a statement.

RELATED: Future Drones Will Fly as Silent as Owls, as Steady as Bees

The task force will dispatch investigators to each and every reported use of drone smuggling across the country, with the goal of tracking each shipment back to its source.

“The threat posed by drones is clear, but our dedicated staff are committed to winning the fight against those who are attempting to thwart progress by wreaking havoc in establishments all over the country,” Gyimah said.

The UK is stepping up its response due in part to growing evidence that organized crime is getting into the prison smuggling business. The new initiative will be folded into a broader plan to clamp down on drugs and phones in the nation's jails. The UK Justice Secretary recently authorized funding for 2,500 “frontline” prison officers, as well as 300 drug detection dogs.

In March, British authorities handed down the longest sentences yet for drone-based prison smuggling crimes. Two men were jailed for dropping packets of heroin, marijuana, and cell phones into three prisons in the regions of Hertfordshire, Suffolk, and Kent. The contraband — delivered by store-bought commercial hobby drones — was estimated to be worth more than $60,000.

RELATED: Amazon's Drones, Robots and Blimps Are Shaping the Future of E-Commerce

Incidents in the US suggest that criminals are getting more sophisticated as well. In a case last year in Maryland, a recently released inmate worked with a prisoner still on the inside to deliver contraband via drone on a regular nighttime schedule, earning more that $6,000 per drop, according to a report in the Washington Post.

While drone deliveries are a new problem for prison officials, aerial smuggling operations have actually been around for a while. In the late 1990s, law enforcement agencies in both the US and Europe were stumped at a sudden spike in contraband until they finally figured out the source — homemade catapults calibrated to fling packages directly into prison yards.

Ingenuity. There's no stopping it.

WATCH: Why Kites Are Becoming the Next Drones