Department of Justice Worried Drones Will Lift People Over Prison Walls

Most of the drones big enough to lift human beings are so expensive that criminals may as well get a helicopter.
September 17, 2020, 1:00pm

Prison guards are worried that drones may soon fly over prison walls and rescue criminals from confinement by literally picking them up and lifting them to freedom. That’s according to a new report from the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General about the new and emerging threats posed by Unmanned Aircraft Systems. 

“As drone technology evolves, Bureau of Prisons (BOP) officials told us that future devices may even have payload capabilities that could allow for the lifting of an adult out of a prison,” the report states.

That claim seems ludicrous on its face, but drones more generally have become a source of contraband for the BOP, the agency said in the report.

BOP began tracking drone incursions in 2018. In that first year, the BOP counted 23 drone incidents. In 2019, that number was up to 57. According to the DOJ, BOP recovered a drone “with a package containing 20 cell phones, 23 vials of injectable drugs, dozens of syringes, and multiple packages of tobacco, among other contraband items.”

“Drones have been used to deliver contraband to inmates, and could also be used to surveil institutions, facilitate escape attempts, or transport dangerous weapons such as firearms or explosives,” Michael Horowitz, Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice, said in a press release.

The biggest fear highlighted by the report is the fear that inmates may soon use drones to escape prison. “Several DOJ officials cited the possibility of individuals using a drone offensively by arming it with firearms or explosives and targeting  persons on the ground,” the report said.

Off-the-shelf drones have long been used in war zones to track the enemy and deliver munitions. The Islamic State has made wide use of off-the-shelf drones to drop grenades or homemade explosives on warzones.

Drones lifting criminals out of the prison yard is more fantastic. There isn’t a commercial drone on the market that can carry the weight of a human being safely. Different companies are working on the technology and in 2018, a Chinese company successfully tested a drone that can carry 1.5 tonnes

But that’s the exception. According to Amazon, its delivery drones only carry a weight of up to five pounds. There aren’t many large commercial drones that can carry the weight of a human. They do exist, but most aren’t available for purchase. Those that do, such as the xFold Dragon, cost upwards of $32,000. Anyone paying those prices to escape prison can afford to use a helicopter instead. It’s a method of escape so common it has its own Wikipedia entry. It's also worth mentioning that using a drone versus a helicopter is splitting hairs—both are loud, both are very visible, and both are expensive.

The window to use drones to ferry goods in and out of prisons is closing too. As UAV technology has exploded, so too has the number of companies selling anti-drone solutions. The report concludes by recommending the BOP get better at tracking and work with Washington’s Counter-UAS Operational Test and Evaluation Committee to help build new technology to prevent the drones from ever entering the prison.