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Prisons Work To Keep Out Drug-Smuggling Drones

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Drone technology is getting more advanced and more affordable. Great for consumers, but a challenge for law enforcement, in particular, prison officials because drones are being used to smuggle in drugs or cell phones or other contraband. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: I'm standing with Chris Gautz of the Michigan Department of Corrections on a rural road in Ionia, Mich. On one side is a small farm with a barn - on the other, the Handlon Correctional Facility. Gautz says two workers came into the yard of the facility early in the morning on August 17th and heard this sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE MOTOR)

SAMILTON: That's a drone.

CHRIS GAUTZ: When they went to go investigate, they saw the drone come down and drop a package of contraband near one of the housing units.

SAMILTON: Inside the package? Cell phones, cigarettes, marijuana and razor blades. Now, the three men operating the drone weren't exactly criminal masterminds. They only used the drone's GPS and not the camera. So they couldn't see officers running pell-mell towards the package.

GAUTZ: As the staff started to congregate, the drone came back and literally dropped another piece of contraband right near them.

SAMILTON: That second package gave corrections officers and local police all the time they needed to nab the guys, who tried to hide the drone in the barn across the road. They're in jail awaiting trial. And if they're found guilty, they'll be on the inside, not the outside of this very prison. While their ineptitude may be humorous, Gautz says every incident presents a potential threat.

GAUTZ: We have to blow the siren. We have to bring every prisoner from outside, lock them in, do an emergency count. We have to go out, we have to sweep the yard.

SAMILTON: Incidents like this are increasingly common. Drones have been spotted dropping contraband into prisons in more than a dozen states. Matt Scassero is director of the University of Maryland Unmanned Aircraft Test Site.

MATT SCASSERO: It's easy to do. It's hard to do well.

SAMILTON: On the other hand, Scassero says, if you do know what you're doing, it's becoming easier to avoid getting caught. Drones now have such a long range, you don't have to be next to a prison to fly contraband to your buddy on the inside. You could be 20 miles away.

SCASSERO: You could design a system that is totally autonomous, that you could say, go, and shut down the RF link and there's no transmission back and forth between the aircraft and the ground station.

SAMILTON: As you would expect, experts are working to stay one step ahead. Scassero says companies are designing audio, radar and laser systems to detect drones, along with technology to disable or intercept them. The best solution would be to jam the radio frequencies that drones use. That could keep them completely out of a prison's airspace. But there are some big problems to overcome there. Jamming can interfere with the bandwidths used by other aircraft or communications systems, which is why it's hard to get special permission from the Federal Communications Commission to do it.

MICHAEL ZEIGLER: Our biggest concern is flying weapons in. You get a gun inside a facility, that's a nightmare.

SAMILTON: That's Michael Zeigler. He's deputy secretary of Public Safety and Corrections in Maryland. His department just got emergency funding to evaluate drone detection systems after contraband got into some state prisons via drone. But Zeigler says there will be no easy fix here.

ZEIGLER: This game of drones is a game that constantly changes, and it continues to get more sophisticated and more sophisticated as time goes on.

SAMILTON: Maryland is expected to install drone detection systems in its prisons within a year or two. Experts say it likely won't be long before drone detection is a standard security feature at state and federal prisons all across the country. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.