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Tech by VICE

Criminals Are Using Heat-Seeking Drones to Sniff Out Weed—And Steal It

High-flying thugs in the UK are ripping a page right from law enforcement's playbook.

by Brian Anderson
Apr 18 2014, 2:50pm
Photo: Shutterstock

Ripping a page right from law enforcement's playbook, high-flying criminals in Britain are using small-fry drones fitted with infrared homing technology to sniff out heat emitted from indoor cannabis grows, to then make off with the good shit. 

"I bought my first drone for a few hundred quid and learnt how to fly it over wasteland and fitted a wifi camera to it so I could look into people's windows," a 33-year-old criminal told the local Halesowen News. "However, I noticed police helicopters used thermal imaging cameras to find cannabis farms because of the heat the hydroponic lights give off," the weed-napper went on, "so I bought a second hand heat-seeking camera online and hooked it up to my iPad."

Once a grow is spotted, he and his crew will confront the owner(s), who apparently don't put up much of a fight. While cultivating herb remains illegal in the UK, it's about as close to going mainstream as it'll ever be—more and more growers are everyday folk, just trying to get by. They're not gangsters, armed to the teeth. So if the thugs don't straight up raid the place, they'll tax the pants off the victims.

A pot grow in Birmingham "lit up like a beacon" through the infrared eyes of a law enforcement helicopter, via West Midlands Police

It should be noted that this this is a particularly rare confluence of heat-seeking drones, illegal drugs, and extortion in the UK. (To my knowledge, it's the first such case of its kind.) We don't yet know if the phenomenon is widespread, if it's merely been flying under the radar until now, or if it'll fizzle out as global cannabis policy slowly shifts away from a staunchly prohibitionist stance. 

But we do know, as the local paper reports, that it's veritable boom times in Cradley Heath, Oldbury, and Halesowen, for illicit homegrown bud. It stands to reason that so long as cannabis remains prohibited people will go right on growing the stuff in their homes; they'll be prime pickings for a new class of tech-savvy criminals who spin up radio-controlled planes kitted out with off-the-shelf infrared specs, otherwise flipping cops' leading-edge counternarcotics tactic on its head. Hell, for all we know, it'll usher in a new era of drone-spun debt bondage and intimidation of illegal growers. 

If anything, it's another notch in drones' complicated relationship with illegal drugs. As we've reported, drones are being used to smuggle drugs into prisons in Australia, Canada, the US, and in Central America, but all to no avail. Buzz kill.