The drones come in the night. Flown from adjacent farmers’ fields, they fly high up over the floodlit yards of the prison, float momentarily to ensure they’ve not been spotted, and then descend, dropping illicit cargo in plastic bags attached by s-hook —meth, marijuana, tobacco, cell phones.
They do it over and over again, until all the contraband is delivered.
“There’s not a prison not fighting this issue in the country,” says Sean Ferguson, New Technology Project Manager at Georgia State Department of Corrections. “If they say they’re not facing it, they’re just not admitting to it. So it is an issue.”
Drones have been a problem at GDC since at least 2013, when a “remote-controlled helicopter” was seen hovering with contraband over Calhoun State Prison outside of Morgan, GA. Authorities were able to arrest the pilot and recover the smuggled goods, but as drone technology has advanced, arrests and intercepting contraband have become much rarer. And the drone attacks have only increased.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot prison officials can do due to a handful of state and federal laws that prohibit, among other things, shooting the drone out of the sky.
So the GDC has partnered with a New Jersey-based company called AeroDefense to test a drone detection system called AirWarden. It’s basically a drone radar — officials can see where and when a drone has flown into the prison’s airspace. The idea is that they can lock down the facility and do a sweep, before any contraband is discovered by inmates. The local sheriff is dispatched to chase down the drone’s pilot.
They haven’t caught anyone yet, but officials are confident the bad guys know they’re being watched. “The can feel the heat on their backs,” Ferguson says.
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