Prisons Fear Escape By Drone, Presumably Because They have Never Seen a Drone

Prisons Fear Escape By Drone, Presumably Because They have Never Seen a Drone
Image: Bruce Bennett, Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Justice released a chilling audit yesterday detailing the imminent threat of drones to prison security. What could these robotic sky criminals of the future look like? Bellies large enough to hold a convicted murderer, chainsaw launchers, invisibility cloaks that allow them to soar at top speed through clear blue skies undetected? Anything is possible.

The report opens in the present day, 2020. According to cited U.S. Bureau of Prisons data, there were 57 drone “incidents” at BOP federal facilities in 2019 — though naturally, the agency believes such incursions to be underreported. In one case, a prison claims to have thwarted a drone attempting to carry “20 cell phones, 23 vials of injectable drugs, dozens of syringes, and multiple packages of tobacco, among other contraband items.” 57 incidents, spread over 365 days and several thousand prisons. There’s an even more dire threat posed by of drones though:

“As drone technology evolves, 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 lifting of an adult out of a prison.

Reporter Andrew Liszewski, ever the voice of reason, pointed out that the payload capacity of an average drone is roughly equivalent to its own weight. And as the Verge pointed out, it is possible to attach many small drones together, Voltron-like, which can lift a man — but at a roughly equivalent speed as a chair attached to several helium balloons.

If proper security precautions and robust funding aren’t provided to the Bureau of Prisons immediately, could a drone ferry inmates through the night sky? Hell, I’m no aeronautics expert, but I found someone who is.

“While the world of drones is constantly evolving, at this present moment there are not any commercially available options for such audacious activities,” co-founder of the licensed drone services provider Global Air Media LLC Austin Brown told Gizmodo. Here’s why:

I am defining commercial drones as ones that are available on the market to consumers, even wealthy consumers. I don’t know of any that are anywhere close to carrying the weight of a person. If you expand the definition of ‘commercial’ to include drones at research institutions then the simple answer is, yes. A drone could theoretically carry a person out of prison given that it has the payload capability. Those drones do exist, outside of the military mostly as prototypes. And while there are drones that are capable of carrying heavier payloads, they are prohibitively expensive.

This type of drone wouldn’t be purchased on Amazon or at Walmart, but by an organisation like a research institution. It’s not that the technology doesn’t exist, but that it’s extremely hard for the average person to get to. If someone was trying to break El Chapo out of prison, I could see a situation where they would have the resources to execute such a daring escape. Even still, they would have to finagle a drone with these capabilities or construct one from scratch.

For reference, DJI is currently the largest manufacturer of commercial drones on the market. They control about 70% of commercial drone sales globally. Popular models such as the phantom, mavic, and inspire are flown by professionals and amateurs alike. However, their payload capacity only goes up to 8lbs. DJIs biggest model the DJI Storm only has a payload capacity of 18 kg.

Brown also mentioned that the commercially-available drones seen in public spaces have an FAA-regulated maximum payload of 25 kg, and many drones have geo-fences preventing them from flying around “sensitive areas” such as prisons.

Even in the grimdark imagination of BoP officials, drones acting as a popular method for jailbreaks seems highly unlikely, and easily thwarted, given the speeds a man-carrying drone would move at and the level of noise it would generate.

“Couldn’t you hit it with a giant net?” senior consumer tech editor Alex Cranz, an expert in cutting-edge technology, wondered. Yes, most likely you could — if you were incredibly wealthy.

As the report notes, “officials from two large state correctional systems stated that cost has been the primary barrier to their implementation of counter-drone measures, with one reporting that even nontechnology options such as netting over the prison yard could cost millions of dollars for one large prison.”

Millions of dollars for a big net.

Airlifted criminals, to be fair, only make a minor cameo in the report, which focuses mostly on uses better grounded in physics as we currently understand it. “Drones have been used to deliver contraband to inmates,” the report states, “but could also be used to surveil institutions, facilitate escape attempts, or transport explosives.”

It’s unclear if contraband or explosives would merely slip through the holes in the world’s most expensive trapeze net, but beneath these bits of borderline fanfiction is a familiar fearmongering tactic. In 2018, the Prison Policy Initiative noted that the Bureau of Prisons invented a likely non-existent threat of visitors smuggling contraband to inmates in order to replace face-to-face visitation with phone calls, all to justify profitable partnerships with blood-sucking telecom companies. In their findings, however, prison staff, not visitors, were in fact found guilty in 20 cases of smuggling that year. These sorts of cases are not uncommon.

The only solution to problems real or imagined, prisons contend, is to give more money to prisons.

Gizmodo has reached out to the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons regarding counterdrone strategies and will update the post if we hear back.