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New tech needed to counter prison smuggling

by Se Eun Lee •
Free resource

Corrective services agencies around the world are seeking out innovative technologies, including sensors, radars and signal-jamming devices, that can prevent drones from smuggling contraband into prisons.

Drones smuggling in various items to prison inmates has been a growing concern in Australia in recent years. In addition to drugs, drones could be used to deliver mobile phones and weapons to prisoners or to scope out weaknesses in the prison security system.

In March 2014, Victorian police intercepted a drone allegedly trying to deliver drugs to the Metropolitan Remand Centre in Ravenhall. The Victorian Government responded by establishing a no-fly zone over Victorian prisons, making it an offence to fly drones at or below 400 feet (approximately 120 metres) above a prison.

There have been calls for similar regulations in other jurisdictions. In New South Wales, there were calls to establish a no-fly zone after an unidentified drone was detected over Goulburn Correctional Centre in 2015, although no changes have been implemented to date. Other countries have been facing similar problems, including a notable incident in July 2017, when an inmate in a South Carolina maximum-security prison escaped using a cell phone, wire cutters, and other tools dropped off by a drone.

In response, corrective services agencies are exploring technology solutions to stop drones delivering contraband to prisons.

The South Australian Department for Correctional Services recently released a tender “seeking information from the industry about solutions currently available for the detection, deterrence and delay of incursions into a secure prison zone”.

"We're calling on technology providers — whether it be through radar systems or other methods to in effect have a drone shield over South Australian prisons — to ensure that if someone flies a drone into that airspace it gets detected, and to make sure they get caught accordingly", Corrective Services Minister Peter Malinauskas told ABC News.

The tender closes on 20 October 2017.

Drone deterrence solutions already in use include New York Suffolk County Correctional Facility’s five multisensory trackers that send alerts – via video, SMS and email – to the guards at the control station and other staff when an unmanned aircraft system is detected nearby.

More advanced technologies include a pioneering security system used in a British prison designed to stop drones from making illicit deliveries. The device, called “Sky Fence”, creates a 2,000 foot (600 metre) ‘drone-proof shield’ around the prison by using a series of signal disruptors that detect the presence of a remote-controlled device and block the frequency that allows the drone to communicate with its pilot. This then causes the drone to activate its ‘return to home’ mode, flying back to where it came from so that guards can track the operator.

The device was created by UK companies Drone Defence and Eclipse Digital Solutions.

In addition to prisons, airports, government buildings and military facilities are also likely to require anti-drone security systems, with organisations like NASA already working on devices to disable drones entering designated no-fly zones.

Drone security forms part of the Australian public sector’s widening interest in the technology, and government agencies have already begun incorporating drones into their operations. Work and safety regulators, such as SafeWork NSW, have indicated their interest in employing drones to provide visibility and access to areas that may be difficult or unsafe to reach as part of an investigation, and to check progress on work sites. Law enforcement agencies also use drones to assist in the search for forensic evidence in challenging crime scenes.

At the end of August, the Queensland Government released a consultation paper on the development of Australia’s first Whole-of-Government Drones Strategy, which will further highlight drones’ growing significance within the public sector technology market.

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