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Eye in the sky: Using drones to boost correctional facility security

In the right hands, drones can be a powerful asset to any correctional facility, rather than a recurrent threat


Police officers survey the scene via a drone at a Wells Fargo Bank, Friday, July 7, 2017 in Marietta, Ga.

AP Photo/Mike Stewart


Editor’s note: Video technology is impacting every facet of modern-day life, shaping the delivery of education and training, transforming how we communicate with each other, and advancing surveillance and security. This special coverage series, Video in Corrections: How Technology is Transforming Prison & Jail Operations, takes an in-depth look at how correctional facilities can use video to improve both operational efficiency and officer and inmate health and safety.

By James Careless, C1 Contributor

Google “drones and corrections facilities” and you’ll be rewarded with stories about drones being used to smuggle drugs, weapons, cellphones and other contraband into prisons. What you likely won’t see is a story on how drones can actually enhance correctional facility security.

Until now, that is: This article outlines how drones can be used to enhance perimeter security, help track down inmate escapees and even aid in apprehending operators of contraband-smuggling drones.

In the right hands, drones – also known as unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – can be a powerful asset to any correctional facility, rather than a recurrent threat.

The Perfect Prison Drone Scenario

In a perfect world, a prison could equip itself with a fleet of remotely-controlled UAS that could be automatically triggered.

Equipped with thermal imaging cameras that can see visible and infrared light – meaning that they can ‘see’ the heat emitted by moving humans – these drones can be strategically located around the prison’s perimeter.

Any time an alarm is raised – be it for possible perimeter intrusion, an inmate attempting to escape, or a hostile drone coming in from the outside – these drones could be commanded to launch themselves and begin flying pre-set patterns; each one broadcasting live video feeds back to the prison’s monitor-equipped control room. (The memory card within the drone automatically records the video being captured for later reference.)

“You could have four drones, with each one pre-programmed to fly a search grid in its own quadrant of the prison grounds,” said Bryan Sanders, vice president of Homeland Surveillance & Electronics, LLC, a UAS provider. “If necessary, the drone pilot on your staff could take direct manual control of the drone, and use it to follow an intruder or escapee.”

UAVs can provide exact GPS coordinates of each aircraft so that responders know, within feet, of where the suspect is at that exact moment.

This same prison drone could also fly up to a hostile drone attempting to bring in contraband, and follow it back to its controller; unless they instruct the hostile drone to land and then make their escape. At the very least, the attempted contraband transfer would be stopped. At the most, the pilot of the hostile drone would be caught, and the drone seized.

The good news: “The software and technology to create this kind of ‘drone shield’ is currently doable,” said Dan Schwarzbach, executive director and CEO of the Airborne Public Safety Association. The bad news: This is really beyond the budget of most correctional facilities.

A Realistic Drone Scenario

Enough dreaming: Let’s look at a realistic drone-based solution that is economically feasible for most prison operations.

In this scenario, a correctional facility would acquire a single drone, and then pay to have one or more staff members trained to fly it, including earning the necessary FAA certification and permissions. (This Police1 article provides more information on the FAA certification that is best for your agency.)

“Drones can also be used inside prisons during inmate unrest,” said John Abbey, a retired chief of police who now lectures on drones and their many applications in law enforcement. “Many prisons have main interior spaces that you could drive a truck through. That’s enough room to fly a very small drone; giving eyes into the area when inmates disable surveillance cameras.”

As far as drone intrusions, the FAA is focused on “countermeasures” and has published enforcement guidelines for local agencies,” Abbey added. “Ideally, corrections organizations will integrate their own countermeasures with their enforcement partners.”

Back to drone size: Correctional facilities can choose between large, intimidating drones that let escapees and intruders know they’re being watched, or super-small nano drones that can monitor what’s happening without being easily spotted.

“It all depends on the statement that you are trying to make,” said Sanders. “Do you want escapees and intruders to know in no uncertain terms that ‘We’re watching you!’ or catch them unaware and keep an eye on what they’re doing without their knowledge? It’s a personal choice. The fact is that UAV surveillance is a powerful deterrent and a great way to keep correctional officers out of harm’s way.”

Taking the Next Step

Clearly, drones operated by correctional facilities could work wonders in improving perimeter security, tracking escapees and dealing with hostile drone intrusions on prison grounds.

This said, you can’t just buy a drone and then start flying it. Your designated staff pilots need to pass the FAA regulations and get proper flight training, and your facility needs to choose the right drone(s) for your needs.

“What is clear is that drones can be a major boost to correctional facility security,” said Abbey. “They could make the difference during a prison break – after all, police use drones to track escapees – and in deterring hostile drone incursions on your property.”

About the author
James Careless is a freelance writer with extensive experience covering computer technologies.