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Drones could enable daring prisoner escapes, officials warn

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has warned that unless appropriate measures are taken, drones could one day enable prisoner escapes by airlifting convicts to freedom.

Concerns about such a threat were raised in a recently released report on the DOJ’s efforts to protect prison facilities from unmanned aircraft systems.

While something as diminutive as a DJI Mavic Air 2 is clearly never going to become an escape tool for a yardbird looking for an early release, a larger machine made with multiple rotors could conceivably be used to carry a felon to freedom. We have, after all, already seen such a contraption lifting a person high into the sky, while prominent YouTuber Casey Neistat has also performed a similar feat with a custom-built eight-rotor drone.

In its report, which looked at the threat of drones both big and small, the DOJ said enhanced tracking of drone-related incidents was needed at facilities operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in order to more accurately assess the threat posed by remotely controlled flying machines.

It said the BoP faces “significant and growing challenges to protect its facilities from drone threats,” pointing out that the devices have been used “to deliver contraband to inmates, and could also be used to surveil institutions, facilitate escape attempts, or transport dangerous weapons such as firearms or explosives.”

The BOP only started to formally formally track drone incidents at its facilities in 2018, when 23 incidents were reported. Last year that figure grew to 57. However, it is well known that incursions were already occurring prior to 2018, while the DOJ acknowledges that the true number of drone-related incidents at prisons is likely to be much greater than official statistics suggest.

The DOJ said in its report that it faces a number of challenges in its efforts to evaluate solutions suitable for securing BoP facilities from drone threats, including “identifying appropriate technologies, verifying that they deliver on promised capabilities, and assessing the cost and benefits of these purchases.” It added that given the limited resources available to the BOP and the rapid advancements in drone technology, “continued collaboration both within DOJ and among other federal agencies will be essential to addressing these challenges and protecting BOP facilities from drone threats.”

While there are indeed a growing number of technologies designed to protect prisons and other off-limits sites from rogue drone flights, a solution for preventing illegal airlifts performed by remotely controlled, human-carrying drones could potentially be a lot more low-tech — possibly in the form of a net placed over the prison yard.

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