Modern Aerial Technology Creates New Security Challenges

By Chris McManes

Smuggling contraband into prisons is nothing new. What is new is the method of delivery. Whereas things like hacksaws and cigarettes used to be carried in or mailed in, they can now be flown in.

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or vehicles (UAV) makes smuggling into jails and prisons much easier. But it’s not just what’s coming in. Systems are now capable of helping people get out.

“It’s just a matter of time,” said Adam Kelly, chief technology officer at DeTect, Inc., of Panama City, Fla.

Kelly was speaking in late April, at the IEEE International Symposium on Technologies for Homeland Security (HST), in Waltham, Mass. He presented a paper on, “Risk Assessment for Application of Sensor Technologies to Overcoming the Security Risks of Unmanned Systems.”

A number of major companies have plans to start using UAVs to make deliveries.

“What Amazon says they are going to do, the drug smugglers are already doing,” Kelly said.


UASs can be purchased off the shelf, and these systems are relatively inexpensive. You don’t need a lot of technical know-how to get one airborne. They can fly around and invade your privacy by taking photos. They can deliver things that kill. And they’re becoming stealthier.

That’s where a company like DeTect comes in. It specializes in radar and “remote sensing technologies and systems for aviation safety, security and surveillance, drone defense, environmental protection and renewable energy.”  

William Watson, chief engineer at BAE Systems, discussed his company’s role in this area, in the same HST session, with his paper “3D Active and Passive Geolocation and Tracking of Unmanned Aerial Systems.”

“UAS threats are on the rise,” he said. “Consistent detection, tracking and classification is required to protect national assets.”

While some people have resorted to shooting UAVs out of the sky, a more effective way to bring them down is with radio frequency (RF) signals. But first you have to detect the intruders. Then, you have to make sure it’s not a bird. Kelly pointed out that more than 48 million ducks live-and fly-in North America.

Prison Vulnerabilities


Barbed-wire fences surround prison yards-but the yards Prison yards tend to be open air. This two-dimensional solution to keeping criminals in, and contraband out, is no longer viable.

Kelly told the story of a UAV delivery of banned items to a prison in Ohio. The payload included a cell phone, hacksaw blades, cigars, cigarettes, super glue, marijuana, methamphetamines and heroin.

Those things are more precious than gold in a prison. When the delivery hit the ground, a free-for-all ensued. Had it escalated to a riot, inmates, guards and prison officials could have been seriously injured, or killed.

“Anybody who relies on a perimeter fence today is thinking about a two-dimensional way of keeping the world out.” Kelly said. “An unmanned vehicle will enable you to violate that perimeter fence. [There are many] ways criminal enterprises can use that to further their own ends.”

UAVs are strong enough now to hoist people in the air. So instead of relying on a helicopter and trained pilot to help a prisoner escape, a remotely operated UAS can do the same thing.

With far less noise, and at a fraction of the cost.

“Even if it’s [over 130 feet] high, a fence can still be scaled,” Kelly said. “We’ve got [UAVs] coming on to the market that can lift [more than 1,700 pounds]. So that’s several people who can come over in one flight.”  

Danger Lurking All Around Us

We’ve already seen terrorists using trucks to ram through large gatherings of people, leaving scores dead and injured. They can easily replace, or supplement, this crude technique by using a slightly more technologically advanced UAS. A payload of explosives and chemical weapons can be carried and deployed, without much training.

“The places where people [congregate], those are the places that would potentially be terrorist targets,” Kelly said. “And we need to secure all of those environments. It’s going to take layered sensor technology, and fusing that data together to give you that big picture-and make it as difficult as possible for somebody to penetrate through that airspace.”

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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