1493459871155 - Drones v prisons: Could flying robots be taken out by their feathered enemies?

Drones v prisons: Could flying robots be taken out by their feathered enemies?

Here’s the scenario: A drone is spotted approaching Rimutaka Prison carrying a mobile phone. It’s heading straight for a cell window.

Option one – shoot it down. Problem – New Zealand prison guards don’t carry rifles – and what if the shrapnel falls on someone? 

Option two – blast it with a “death ray” that can fry a drone from kilometres away.

Yes, that is a piece of technology Russia has incorporated into its defense arsenal – but the Kiwi taxpayers might have some thoughts on whether it is worth funding one for every prison.

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Option four – create invisible geo-fences or jammers around the prison perimeter to confuse the drone’s radio frequency receiver.

But technology is ever-evolving and many drones are already built to dodge these techniques.

Option five – release a flock of highly-trained birds-of-prey to capture the drone in their talons and destroy it. You can laugh – but that’s what Dutch and French authorities have trained their eagle “air forces” to do.

The current plan of attack for New Zealand prison guards? Spot the incoming drone, judge its flight path, sprint in that direction and hope to beat the prisoners to the drop point.

Yes, said chief custodial officer Neil Beales, the Department of Corrections is concerned about contraband delivery drones.

Contraband finds are increasing – in the past financial year, almost 8000 were uncovered. Drugs accounted for about an eighth of the discoveries. The rest comprised mostly of tobacco and porn on sim-cards.

Beales – probably envisaging Hitchcockian scenes of a cloud of cigarette-bearing drones descending like a flock of birds on Rimutaka Prison – said he mulled whether even to publicly discuss the issue.

But it’s already all over the internet. In one video he has seen, a drone flies a bag into a London prison where a crudely-fashioned stick snakes out of the window, hooks the bounty, and bundles it into a cell.

Beales confirmed there have been three incidents so far of drones caught flying near NZ prisons.

They did not attempt to hover over the prison yards, and the flights were thought to have been controlled by recreational drone users: “We, to date, have not had a particular epidemic of drones being used [over] our sites. But that’s not to say it won’t happen in the future. 

“We certainly aren’t resting on our laurels.”

But there is also appeal in harnessing that same technology – Corrections and the Defence Force are currently trialling surveillance drones for use during prison riots.

Experts say drones are viewed globally as a much broader issue than just prison security.

After protesters managed to land one harmlessly right in front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2013, observers pointed out the potential for explosives to be remotely piloted into crowds.

Militaries have been killing people using advanced drones for decades, X-Craft chief executive Philip Solaris​ pointed out.

He thought the risk of a drone attack should be weighed against other concerns – like their use for mass surveillance.

But the availability of smaller, cheaper varieties, and their ubiquity meaning people are growing complacent at the sight of one democratised their threat as potential weapons.

“The whole thing is a bit of an arms race that’s just starting.”

New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority’s rules for drone use around prisons are the same as other properties; operators must get the consent of the property owner or occupier. 

It has fielded 270 reports of incidents or concerns about drones since January 2016.

It is unlikely people who smuggle contraband into prisons care what the law says anyway, Beales observed.

“For a lot of these people the benefit outweighs the risks.”

So, finally – a use for the Kea’s destructive instincts?

Solaris likes the bird option. They can be trained to avoid risk to life or legal liability: “The idea with bird capture is that they are not just going to drop the drones, they are actually going to fly away with it.”

He believed governments should be thinking about drone defence – “it’s not science fiction”.

“I don’t think there’s a silver bullet for this – you end up wanting to have a Star Trek tractor beam.”