Counter drone technology… for prison facilities

Innovation. Thinking outside the box.

That is what 424 drone sightings near your prison facilities can do for you.

And so it is that the Department of Corrections in South Carolina (SCDC), USA decided to invest in Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems to stem the flow of contraband flowing into the state’s prisons via unauthorised drones.

And – at least according to SCDC Director Bryan Stirling – so sophisticated are the smuggling operations into prisons in South Carolina that they are actually an industry unto themselves.

You figure they’d have to be too; if unusual means have to be deployed to stop them.

“They’ve used potato guns to shoot stuff into the yards, things of that nature, and they’ll try to hide it like if it’s a soccer ball or something,” Stirling said in 2021.

“They’ll make it look like a rock; you know. They’ll put glue on there, put dirt and grass and everything.”

Drones started appearing in 2017; and Stirling marvelled at how they operated with a precision that was almost military-like.

“They’ll send a decoy in, and we’ll chase that decoy because we have systems in place that alert us to drones in the area, and we’ll chase that,” he explained.

“But then they send two drones in from another side, drop their load and take off.”

Since then, small drones have been seen lurking around prison facilities in the US state nearly 500 times; and the systems the department had put in place as a counter measure were failing.

In 2021 alone, 166 cases of drones being sighted in the vicinity of a prison facility were recorded in South Carolina.

The numbers shot up to 262 last year; and this year alone, they stand at 198.

Yes; prison contraband is an industry.

“This is a national problem,” Stirling said. This is in state prisons. This is in federal prisons. It’s very dangerous.”

According to a national advisory report released in June by The National Institute of Justice, there is concern about the “growing capabilities of drones that can deliver contraband into a facility.”

So the SCDC thought of investing in a new C-UAS system from counter drone systems technology company Dedrone.

How to abuse a drone: drone technology has fallen into the hands of criminals who abuse it to smuggle contraband into prisons. Picture: Live 5 News

Coming in both static and mobile units, Dedrone’s technology is operated by artificial intelligence and alerts prison officials when drones enter their restricted airspace.

It can detect almost all drone models on the market today, can track their flight paths and pinpoint the devices’ point of origin.

“The likelihood of (the criminal drone operators) being watched and caught has gone up exponentially,” Stirling said.

Having started with four facilities, the department plan to expand to four more soon.

“It’s not just one thing,” says Stirling. “It is a combination of things. It’s technology. It’s human capital. It’s investing in what we need to invest in to stop these drones from coming in and stop the contraband.”

The contraband drone even prompted the passage of a law in South Carolina criminalising the act of operating a drone near a state prison without explicit permission.

The department’s drone team has also expanded to about 25 members that fly drones around prison facilities on reconnaissance and counter-surveillance duties; as well as to find hidden contraband drops on roofs and in hard-to-find places and assist in searches with local law enforcement.

To date, the SCDC reports that eleven people have been arrested since the start of the year in connection with drone drops, with the latest one as recently as last Wednesday.

Authorities also say two of these people have been caught more than once.

One of them, Joshua Jordan of Summerville was caught in May after he was allegedly seen attempting to fly two bags of tobacco into Lee Correctional facility.

Before then, Jordan had been arrested in January 2022, just outside Lieber Correctional, after an illegal drone drop went wrong and the machine crashed into the prison yard.

According to the arrest warrants, correctional staff found more than 500 grams of marijuana and tobacco, alongside hacksaw blades and lighters intended for prisoners inside.

“This doesn’t only affect… inside the prison, it affects folks outside,” Stirling said. “We’ve got a lieutenant here who is doing a very good job at finding contraband and they tried to burn his house down in Summerville.”

In that case, it was Jordan who was charged with attempted arson and later released on a $200,000 bond.

Dedrone’s detection tech was launched around the time authorities caught Jordan and it was able to detect that he had used the same drone each time he was arrested.

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