UK government wants prisons geoblocked by drone manufacturers
Thu 3 Nov 2016
The UK Ministry of Justice, in an attempt to address growing concerns with the prevalence of illegal drone activities at prisons, is working with drone manufacturers to include prison coordinates in pre-programmed no-fly zones.
A report on Prison Safety and Reform presented to Parliament includes a section addressing the growing threat that drones present to the health and safety of inmates and employees at prisons. The new report states that the MoJ will ‘trial, together with industry, the inclusion of prison coordinates in no-fly zones which have the potential to be programmed into the majority of drones on the market (although we must think carefully about how much information we are willing to put into the public domain and therefore make available to the criminal community).’
While currently the number of attempts to deliver contraband over the walls of a prison by drone is still far outnumbered by conventional methods (throw-overs, or smuggling contraband on a person), incidences are increasing in number. In England and Wales, there were 0 recorded drone deliveries of prohibited items to prisons in 2013, 2 in 2014, and 33 in 2015, representing a growth in incidents of over 1500%.
The MoJ report notes that the increase in numbers may be due to improvements in awareness and reporting of incidents, but that it also reflects the growing knowledge of the technology and availability of drones to the average buyer.
Including prison coordinates in the pre-programmed no-fly zones is being explored as one method of controlling this growing problem. If a prison is designated at the manufacturer as a no-fly zone, the drone will be automatically repelled from flying over the coordinates for the prison area.
However, this raises concerns with the amount of information that releasing prison GPS coordinates to the public would cause. Also, certain manufacturers have an opt-out function on their drones, which allows a user to override pre-programmed geo-fencing coordinates.
No-fly zones currently include military airspace mainly used for fighter pilot or weapons training, and very few other areas as defined by the National Air Traffic Service in the UK. Prisons are considered ‘restricted space’, as are nuclear facilities, but neither have no-fly coordinates programmed by the manufacturer prior to sale.
In the U.S. in April, the Senate passed a law requiring the FAA to work with manufacturers to develop new safety features for drones, including geo-fencing, aimed at creating no-fly zones over restricted airspace, including prisons, airports, and sporting events.
Should the Ministry of Justice successfully negotiate an easy way to define and program no-fly zones at the manufacturer, demand for similar no-fly services could skyrocket. Drone-repelling technology is already in high demand from celebrities hoping to avoid intrusions, as well as airports, government facilities and data centers looking out for breaches in security. Even sports stadiums and film studios are looking for ways to prevent their locations from being filmed by avid fans.
Noflyzoneuk, a geo-fencing startup that has since gone out of business, found that while customer demand to geo-fence private residences was great, with over 10,000 people signing up for the service in the first 24 hours, drone manufacturers were reluctant to get on board.
“While many people embraced the idea of letting drone operators know that flying over their property wasn’t welcomed, there was no clear legal basis on which those residents could exclude drones,” said Greg McNeal, co-founder of Noflyzone. “Because of that, manufacturers didn’t feel the need to participate in the system, so the business was closed.”
Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah said, during Justice Questions in the Commons, “The new threat by drones is a game changer, not just for prisons but for other parts of Government. That is why I’m working with ministers across the Government to engage with drone manufacturers to find a solution to this problem.”
Pre-programmed no-fly coordinates are only one of the potential solutions to the prison drone delivery issue. In the U.S., many prisons have implemented a technological solution such as the Dedrone DroneTracker – a small device that can detect drone activity for 1,640 feet in any direction.
A creative drone detection and prevention plan currently in use by Dutch police involves training eagles to attack drones on sight. As Prisons Minister Gyimah said, “I’m keeping a close eye on what is happening internationally, particularly in Holland where they are using eagles to stop drones, and I’m sure we will find a solution in the UK which will take off.”