UK’s Widest Selection of Commercial Drones

The State of UAVs in the UK, Part 1 – Prisons

Last updated on

August 22, 2018


    Drugs are a major problem in the UK. The National Crime Agency estimates that drug trafficking is worth around £10.7 billion a year. A recent report from the European Union also doesn’t make pleasant reading, with the UK reported having the seventh highest proportion of residents claiming to have taken an illegal drug during the previous twelve months.

    The drugs epidemic has led to an increase in violent crime across the country. London particularly has a problem, as so-called McMafia gangs fight turf wars in the city. During the first six months of 2018, there were an estimated 51 fatal stabbings in the city. The vast majority of these incidents were linked to drugs.

    From street to cell block

    But the drug problem does not just affect what goes on in the wider community, it also transfers to the prison population. Data from HM Prison Service estimates that 15% of the prison population is incarcerated due to drug-related offences. Some of these are for supply, but the vast majority are for crimes committed to pay for their habit.

    Drugs are of course addictive. This means the demand for illegal substances does not magically disappear once offenders are taken off the streets. The problem is merely transferred, from the streets to the cell block.

    This captive market of drug users is like a red rag to a bull for organised crime. The price of drugs in UK prisons can reach up to four times their street value. So there is big money to be made selling drugs to inmates. The problem, of course, is how to get illegal drugs past guards into the prison system.

    How drugs find their way into prisons

    Traditionally mules have been used to smuggle illegal substances past security. Sometimes visitors smuggle drugs in for relatives, other times prison guards themselves are involved. With such large amounts of money at stake, it is easy to compromise the resolve of even the most upstanding of citizens.

    But over the past couple of years, a new trend has emerged, as dealers look to bypass ever-tightening security measures. Drones are being used to fly drugs and other contraband over prison walls directly into prison grounds.

    The problem has become so acute that during the six-month period between April and September of 2017, prison staff recovered 32 UAVs attempting to deliver contraband to inmates of HM Prison Liverpool. This statistic alone highlights the scale of the problem that prison staff and prosecutors are now faced with.

    How prison drone flights are organised

    You may wonder how such flights are organised. After all, prisons are meant to be secure facilities. Inmates’ communication with the outside world are heavily monitored by the prison guards. So how does one go about arranging a drone to deliver illicit drugs and other contraband inside a secure prison compound?

    A recent case involving a gang who smuggled drugs and phones worth an estimated £1 million into prisons across the UK. This case highlights the ingenuity and complexity of the operation.

    The ringleader of the gang Craig Hickinbottom organised the flights from his prison cell in HM Prison Featherstone, Staffordshire. He would use a mobile phone, (delivered by drone) from his cell to arrange drone flights with co-conspirator Mervyn Foster. Foster was the gang’s prime organiser outside the prison and would be the one to pilot the devices.

    The gang developed a sophisticated order mechanism, which was akin to Amazon for prisoners. Inmates would place orders for contraband from Hickinbottom who would then pass the orders to Foster on the outside for fulfilment.

    The items were delivered by a fleet of drones equipped with fishing wire to drop packages inside prison grounds. The packages would then be collected by another member of the gang using a makeshift extendable hook. A whole range of items was available through the system from illicit drugs to mobile phones and even weapons.

    How were they caught?

    The gang were only caught by chance thanks to cameras set up outside HMP Hewell Worcestershire to film wildlife. The footage collected shows two men in a field close to HMP Hewell preparing a drone for flight, before piloting it over a hedge into the grounds of the prison.

    In total ten members of the gang were convicted of conspiring to bring prohibited items into prison, and conspiracy to supply psychoactive substances. Ringleader, Hickinbottom was sentenced to seven years and two months. Drone pilot Foster was sentenced to six years, eight months for his part in the conspiracy.

    How the Prison Service is dealing with the problem

    While the Hickinbottom case is unique due to the high level of organisation involved, the use of drones to deliver contraband is not. The number of reported cases has risen 1440% since 2014.

    To combat the practice the Prison Service has created a special unit made up of prison and police officers. These specialist officers will work with law enforcement agencies to draw on intelligence from across the prison service along with evidence collected from drones recovered inside prison grounds to identify potential lines of enquiry.

    But this effort alone isn’t going to be enough to prevent the practice altogether. A more comprehensive strategy deployed across all prisons will be required if it is to be wiped out completely. One solution could be to deploy multiple drone mitigation systems across all prisons to help identify and disable rogue devices.

    Drone detection systems have a role to play

    Drone detection systems provide a relatively low-cost solution for monitoring the airspace around prison facilities. One such solution, AeroScope from DJI, uses the communications link between the drone and the ground controller to identify and track the device. The system can also pinpoint the location of the ground controller. This allows law enforcement personnel to be dispatched to apprehend the pilot.

    AeroScope can be deployed as a mobile or fixed solution. The fixed solution has the capability to monitor up to 25 miles of airspace. That should give prison officers plenty of warning about the approach of a device, allowing them to easily intercept it once it crosses into prison grounds.

    With drone technology advancing all the time, and drones becoming more accessible to the general population, it is clear this problem isn’t going away anytime soon. It is important then that the prison service develops systems to combat the practice before they are plagued by swarms of the devices.

    If you would like more information about AeroScope and its capabilities get in touch with the drone mitigation experts at Coptrz.


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