Mitigating Drone Contraband at Prisons as Technology Evolves

David Lewin, Regional Sales manager at Echodyne is joined by Neal Parsons, Senior Research Scientist at RTI International, for a LinkedIn Live session that originally aired in March 2024. The pair discusses how evolving technology has created new concerns for prison security personnel which includes the threats drones pose to general safety and security. Key takeaways from the conversation include:

    • Correctional facilities need a multi-modal approach to drone detection
    • Prisons need sensors that detects drones that elude conventional RF detectors
    • Every drone detection installation is unique and should be treated as such
    • Resources are available for sites considering a drone detection system
Linked In Live Mitigating Drone Contraband at Prisons

The Interview

David Lewin: 

Welcome everybody. Thanks for joining. We're excited to share some breaking news, really dig into the topic of mitigating drone contraband issues at prisons and look at the technology's evolving on both the drone side and the drone detection or counter drone side of things. And I'm really excited to be joined here today by Neal Parsons. He's with RTI International, doing a whole lot of deep dive research into this whole challenge, and I think just contraband in general and all the angles of how they're getting in and drones being that delivery mechanism has emerged as a pretty big threat consistently across the country. So, Neal, I'll pass it to you just for an introduction and then we can dive into the conversation.


Neal Parsons: 

Thanks David. So yeah, Neal Parsons here, RTI International. We’ve been doing quite a bit of counter UAS research as well as contraband research that is entering the prison systems. I'm doing work for the Department of Justice State and local law enforcement is our target audience. I will have to put the disclaimer out there that today anything I say is not necessarily the opinions of the US government nor RTI International. These opinions are my own and I own them.


David Lewin: 

Well, with that, I do want to mention to folks that are joining us live, feel free to submit questions in the comment section and we will attempt to get to all of those here while we're live. If not, we can reply with messages after the fact, but questions definitely keep the conversation lively and you've got Neil here with his experience, so don't hesitate to put in some of those comments as we go.

So, as I mentioned, I'm going to pull up a quick blip here on breaking news here in Georgia, 150 arrested and I'm sure more ongoing. And this was just a huge thing that came out; a couple photos there of what you're seeing of what the kind of contraband and weapons and all kinds of things that they found they were able to confiscate.

I bring that up because that hadn't even happened when Neal and I had planned on doing a conversation today, and it was pretty big breaking news. I think this really started to enlighten folks as to how deep this problem runs and how widespread. And in fact, it looks like there's a local repair shop, drone repair shop owner that was involved. I'm sure that's still being teased out, as to what that involvement might've been, but still the people who were involved that worked at the prison and the whole network of that 150 plus people is pretty profound.

So, I thought it would be interesting, Neal, to get your perspective on that as we kick off the rest of the conversation, just maybe the phone calls you're getting or the rumbling in the industry as that just came out.

prison yard with drone in the sky

Neal Parsons: 

Yeah, kudos to Georgia law enforcement. This is a huge bust. 150 people arrested for this one incident. I mean, they had everything from weapons to very high potency, narcotics to simple things like tobacco and candies and stuff like that that are also considered contraband in the prison.

However, the one thing to note was that they confiscated over 90 drones, so this was a bigger operation than just going after delivering contraband to one facility. They obviously were planning on distributing drugs as a network throughout multiple correctional facilities. And I think right there, Georgia did a fantastic job at really stemming out one of the root causes. And really that's what is important when you're looking at contraband detection because it's still going to make its way into the prison until you cut the head off the Medusa.

We also saw just recently there was another arrest of 11 people in West Virginia. Same thing. They were bringing in contraband into a prison facility. Most likely the inmates or the incarcerated individuals were communicating to the people on the outside telling them how and when and where it was safe to drop that contraband and therefore the authorities did the job that they needed to do to really stop that root cause and find where the drugs are coming from, find the people on the outside that are actually creating this mechanism of delivering contraband.


David Lewin:

Absolutely. Yeah, and I guess that leads to one of the main points that we were going to discuss, which is shutting down the source and finding the people involved - that's really the goal of deploying any sort of detection systems or mechanisms or SOPs.

When a drone is detected, the ultimate goal is to find out the network of who's involved. And so, this was such an interesting relevant story to that. But I guess within that topic, one thing that comes up a lot is, “we can't mitigate the drone.” We can't actually knock it out of the sky or do any sort of official mitigation of the drone itself. So, is it useful just to be able to detect a drone or if we spot it or hear it to call it in if we can't physically take it out?

And you made a really interesting comment that I'd like to hear more from you on that. Sometimes an idea like, “yeah, let's shoot the thing down,” isn't necessarily the best idea. Even if it were not legal, which we know it is currently not - I'll be clear about that - but some of us may think, “if only we could shoot them down, that would be the best way.” Do you have any comments about that in light of this bust and other things? Is that really the best idea - to just shoot it down - if it were legal?


Neal Parsons: 

Yeah, so I think correctional officers, when they're seeing these drones coming in over the correctional facility grounds, I mean they probably want to shoot them. I mean, I imagine that they want to initially stop that contraband delivery. You're not allowed to shoot the aircraft down using a kinetic, which would be either laser or electrode magnetic or even in some cases, unless you're a federal authority to use RF mitigation takeover.

So having that drone come in, deliver a single package of contraband is one thing. But these detection systems, the counter UAS detection systems, one of the best things about them is they're actually seeing where that drone is coming in from. You're seeing the direction that it is flying after it's delivered the contraband, if you understand that the contraband has been delivered, you correctional staff can go gathered that contraband from the field or the yard or wherever it was dropped, but understanding where that drone flew back to and then coordinating with your local law enforcement agencies that perhaps you have an MOU (memorandum of understanding) and a partnership with to actually go and act upon finding the location of that drone and its home base.

And most likely what you're going to find, and that we've seen multiple reports of this, when you find where that drone goes back to, it's more than just the drone, right? It's probably a full cachet of drugs, weapons, multiple other drones, things like that, that are going to be really useful in negating the continuing introduction of contraband into these facilities. So, it's really, again, cutting the head off the source.


David Lewin:

Absolutely. That's a great point. And before we jump off this topic, in your opinion, what is the reality of the threat even for correctional facilities that aren't yet seeing drone delivery? Because in no sense do we want to hype this up and just talk about something and sort of highlight it needlessly. I get the sense that it's happening more often and that folks need to at least start considering what they're going to do, even if they feel like they haven't spotted a drone in a while at their facilities.

What's your take on that without it being hyperbolic? What do you feel like is the reality from what you're seeing?


Neal Parsons: 

Well, I think it depends facility of facility, right? Each facility is going to have a different set of issues. Some may have more of a problem with drone introduction and contraband. Others may not see it at all. The thing is you don't know what you don't know. There's the saying that ‘going in sometimes and putting up a counter UAS sensor is like flipping the lights on in a dirty apartment.’ All of a sudden you see the cockroaches scatter, and that's what they see sometimes.

I mean, once they flip on a piece of sensing equipment, they do see a lot more drones and they even knew we're there. And I do think that is a pervasive issue. It is getting worse. One of the things that you're noticing is that the capabilities of drones, they're getting better and they're getting cheaper. So, you're able to find these really inexpensive drones on Amazon, maybe $600 now. I mean some that are relatively high or quite capable at 600 to 800 to a thousand dollars, and they're able to carry a payload of up to almost kilogram.

So, it's just like one of those things that with the advancements of technology and the more accessibility to these drones, it really provides this new mechanism for nefarious and malicious actions, especially for the correctional facilities. And I'd say that one thing that is really quite interesting is that once you start seeing it, you're going to see it more and more and more until you develop a solution for it until you start actually implementing some sort of action to prevent it or correct it from your partnerships with outside law enforcement agencies.

“One thing that is really quite interesting is that once you start seeing it [drones and drones delivering contraband], you're going to see it more and more and more until you develop a solution for it.”

David Lewin:

Absolutely. And you moved nicely into the next part of the conversation regarding staying ahead of this emerging threat technology evolving. Do you see anything specific around the development of drones? You mentioned it briefly, but the capabilities and where that's going?

We need to think about the type of response detection that's going to keep up with this emerging threat as it changes and not just get stuck in something that is only going to detect drones from a couple years ago because they're moving so rapidly. So, it's kind of food for thought, but any comments on where the drone tech is going?


Neal Parsons: 

Yeah, I mean, there's a lot of copycat technology out there. You're seeing a lot of less experienced brands, newer brands that are actually mimicking DJI type drones. They're using very similar technology, so they're able to ramp up their capabilities in a very short amount of time. And we all know that DGI, drones are the most common drones out there, and they're highly capable. They've been around for over a decade now, and they're easy to fly, easy to use. They have great capabilities.

And one thing we noticed is that you just go on Amazon, you can find a dropping mechanism that works on almost every drone. And so, all of a sudden now, even if your drone wasn't intentionally made to carry a payload and to drop a payload, there's these mechanisms that are freely available and they're cheap. They're like 25, $30 on Amazon. So, it's like, well, now you've just enabled any drone that you buy to be equipped to drop some sort of payload. And I think that really kind of ups the ante a little bit.


David Lewin:

Funny, some of my friends were part of circles in Georgia that were interested in drones and somehow connected to even hearing or at least seeing the messages that were coming out with that repair shop involved. That was part of that whole bust we mentioned earlier. And there was postings on there that were getting a little funny around, Hey, this drone is by this used drone and it's equipped with dropping mechanism, this, that the other, this transponder turned off all these different things. And when you look back forensically and you're like, that probably was getting a little fishy, but that's exactly what they're doing and just doing it in mass or someone who has the chops is putting those together and reselling them.

So, I guess with that, let's talk a little bit about technology and what you're seeing. You guys are doing a lot of testing and looking at, I believe you said in the past that people want a multimodal system when it comes to the prisons that are actually putting technology in place for detecting drones coming in and leaving and where they're coming from, where they're going. They're looking at this multimodality, multiple different types of sensors that could be managed easily by a non-technical operator. So that's a pretty big ask, right? Because a lot of equipment is fairly technical. Seeing it all work together and become really usable for an operator is really important.


Neal Parsons: 

Yeah, I get where you're coming at. So yeah, I mean that's sort of like the holy grail of capabilities for law enforcement, corrections, federal, state, and local is having a suite of sensors and essentially multimodal or what everybody refers to as the systems. And the reason for having that is because you may have a really great RF system, but that RF system only detects a specific subset of drones, DJI drones or something like that. And then therefore there's going to be a lot of drones that you are not detecting well, how will you detect those? And therefore you need another modality - radar acoustic, something like that.

Once you start aggregating all these various pieces of equipment, it becomes very complex and challenging for the end user to actually monitor all these systems at once to actually make sense of the data that's coming in, and especially in a real time environment where you need to make fast decisions because these drones aren't loitering for a very long time where they're going -  they're in and out, they have a mission to do, and then they're right back out to either do another mission or essentially the name of the game is an amenity, right?

Or the nefarious actors don't want to be caught. That's why they're using drones. I mean, you could easily go to the fence and toss over a basketball full of drugs and contraband, but the chances are you're going to get caught doing it. Using a drone provides that distance, provides that level of risk mitigation to your efforts.

And getting back to the system systems approach is that you need all these types of various sensors because each have their own pros and cons to 'em. And doing that, having all the systems come together and play nice together is really the new challenge. And there's the term out there - a single pane of glass - and that's what everybody wants. They want to be able to see all these system works really well, very integrated into one monitor that is able to make sense of all that data and then push that information to the officers who need that information in real time so they can make an actionable, actionable process, whether that's the corrections officers knowing where that contraband has been dropped in the yard, knowing that one, that the contraband has been dropped.

So let's get on the phone to the local authorities and say, “Hey, we just saw this drone. We know where it's headed. Can we set up some sort of operation to understand where we can find this drone and perhaps locate the actors that are involved in this illicit activity?” So yeah, it's really integrating all these various types of systems is a complex thing. That's why it does take research. That's why what we're doing at RTIs is we're looking at multimodal platforms and how these systems work, how they speak to each other, and how easy it is for and then user to actually use these systems with efficacy.

“…the reason for having that [a multimodal system/ systems approach/ sensor stack] is because you may have a really great RF system, but that RF system only detects a specific subset of drones.”

David Lewin:

Totally. And when you talked about response, I was kind of interested in if you had any other takeaway on that. If they do get a detection and they're able to see some sort of pattern of life of where the drone came from, where it's going, maybe work with law enforcement to get ahead of that, do you feel like those types of mechanisms were probably at play perhaps in Georgia or in some of these other examples where they were able to get to the root? I mean, I don't know if you know exactly what they did, but I'm kind of curious if you have any quick items of what you see in a good response plan actually working out there in the world.


Neal Parsons: 

I don't know exactly what sensors they were using or if they were using any counter UAS technology. Even if I did, I probably wouldn't be at liberty to talk about it. My guess is that Georgia has had this counter drone issue, or excuse me, drone contraband delivery issue for a while as well as South Carolina.

We've talked to Joel Anderson down in South Carolina, and he's given us plenty of information on the threat and how they're trying to mitigate it through sensing that UAS coming into a correctional facility and then their processes on how they deal with it in the end.

But to answer your question, I do not have a clue, and I think hopefully that will come out on what they were using just so other correctional facilities, local law enforcement can follow their lead to get on the same page. This was a major bust, and I think it's really important for other agencies to know how their processes worked and what didn't work, and how they were able to make such just substantial arrest.


David Lewin:

Well, so off of that point, do you have any advice for folks that are looking to take the first steps towards implementing technology to detect drones at their correctional facility? In terms of just the process, like basic steps, since you guys are probably following good practices in terms of researching and implementing this technology, is there anything you can share that would just be simple few baby steps for how to vet technology, how to test what those stages might be to make sure that folks are putting the right tech in that's really functional, that they can actually respond to those elements? How do they start implementing full on technology?


Neal Parsons: 

Sure. Well, understanding the legislation, right? Understanding what you're capable of actually deploying. Some RF technologies do have defeat capabilities on 'em. Those right now are only allowed by federal authorities. So, you have to understand what's in within your limits if you're a state or local correctional facility or prison or jail.

The other thing is I would talk to, I would do your research and understand who within that community is actually using systems. Speak to other local or state or even if it's out of state. If you're in North Carolina, where I reside, and you're looking to implement some sort of counter UAS system, go talk to Joel Anderson down in South Carolina. Go talk to the multiple correctional facilities over the US that are actually deploying this technology. Get on the phone with them, understand what worked for them, what didn't work for them.

And then the real piece to this that I'm a little biased on, but I do think that everything needs to be thoroughly vetted prior to its deployment. There's a lot of new technology that is coming to fruition these days. The counter UAS market is proliferating. There's a lot of great technology out there. There's a lot of technology that perhaps needs a little bit more work for it to be extremely effective. But the technology that is there, how it is implemented is a whole other beast because every situation where these technologies are deployed are going to be different. Whether it's a semi-rural or an urban environment, these technologies are going to work differently. So if you're using an RF detection device in an urban environment, you're going to have a lot of background RF noise that you're competing with to make a sound and accurate detection.

So it's just one of those things, understanding how you're going to implement it, where you're going to implement it, how is it different from the people that you're getting recommendations from, and then working with researchers or a third party testing group that can provide you some unbiased testing results to say, “this technology works, this technology doesn't work as well,” or just to provide you that honest feedback, I think is really valuable.


David Lewin:

Do you have any comments on when you're testing for this specific use case, are there certain things you look for and measure - whether it's time of day or number of drones in the air or range?


Neal Parsons: 

I mean, everything has its impact far as environmentally. So, if you throw a drone up at noon on a sunny clear day, it's obviously going to be easier to spot through most detection systems. Once you add in adverse weather conditions, fog, rain, potential obfuscation, or tree line or tall buildings, you're going to have some things to consider there. One thing to consider is where are you positioning your systems, your sensors in your correctional facility. Are they on top of the building? Are they at ground level? Those things do matter.

The field of view from a lot of these sensors is going to be elevation dependent. And so, if you're putting it on a really tall building, there's potential that drone could slip under the sensors field of view. If you're putting it at ground level, it may work a little bit better. So, it's just one of those things where understanding how that technology's going to work in a different environment.

And obviously I'm not allowed to speak to everything that we're doing in our research right now, but it is one of those things where highly focused on - where you put it and implementation is impactful.

And then one thing I will touch on is just the calibration of that instrumentation. Who's going to be operating it? How are they going to get it set up? Is the vendor going to be coming in to help you set it up and tailor it to your specific scenario? That's probably best case is to get an expert to come in, tell you how the technology is going to work within your specific environment, and then really fine tune it to your environment, especially if it's at a fixed site. If it's at a mobile site, then that's a whole different can of worms. But for correctional facilities, most of the time it's at a fixed location.

“When considering your drone detection solution], the best case is to get an expert to come in, tell you how the technology is going to work within your specific environment, and then really fine tune it to your environment.”

David Lewin:

Those are all excellent points. One thing that just came to mind that I'd like to hear from you is how high you've seen drones flying, because we kind of tend to think that they're going to follow the rules and stay within a certain envelope, maybe 400 feet a GL or less. Is that the case, or do you see them, the nefarious actors breaking those rules? I mean, you have to imagine, depending on coverage and field of view of different sensor, you can potentially go under them. You could potentially go over the detection. So, I'm kind of curious just from what you've seen.

And then just a quick note to everybody as we're getting to the tail end of the conversation. If you're listening in and you have any questions, now's the chance to submit 'em as we're talking to Neil Parsons here with RTI Research International RTI International and the research he's doing. So, feel free to send those in.

But Neal, any comments on height? Just kind of variations on how they're flying.


Neal Parsons: 

I don't think the bad actors care about the regulations whatsoever, right? So, 400 A GL doesn't mean anything to 'em. Depending on the terrain, maybe they are flying lower because they have some sort of cover, like a tree line or something like that. But yeah, I mean, they don't care about the 400 A GL limit. They're going to fly as high as those drones can fly, where they can still manage them. Obviously once you get higher in elevation, there's the chance of some pretty significant winds, which may alter how that drone operates and higher elevations, especially with the payload on it, right? Because then you're really altering how that drone functions and performs. But yeah, I mean, you're definitely seeing way above 400 A GL. That's something that needs to be considered when you're testing. That is something that is difficult to test because when you're doing research, you're limited to 400 A GL.

That's something that I think needs to be worked out. That testing can really mimic the realities of the world, and that is that the bad actors aren't playing by the rules. They're not going to turn on the remote id, they're not going to put on a remote id. They're going to fly as high as they want, as fast as they want, and they're going to fly through areas that are supposed to be restricted. So, it's just one of those things you have to understand, they're not going to play by the rules that the FAA has outlined.


David Lewin:

No kidding. Great point there.

So, I guess in closing, do you have any comments on timing? If there's a correctional facility today that is starting to really see a rise in this problem, a lot of contraband, a lot of drones coming in and they say, I need to deploy something. You've seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of current technology, but what's your sense? Is it “wait another six months or a year until technology develops,” or is now a decent time to at least get started [learning and understanding] technology for drone detection?


Neal Parsons: 

Yeah, there's systems out there right now that work, and I think this is an evolving marketplace, and technology is being refined, especially now that we're looking at functionality of machine learning, AI functionality in processing the data that is coming in to make it easier for operators to actually make a decision of whether that is a threat or that is a manned aircraft or a bird or something like that. But yeah, I think there's quite a few technologies out there that show a lot of promise to be implemented right now. Like I said, flipping on those lights and understanding the problem is a big issue. You don't know what you don't know.

But if you're having an issue with contraband within your corrections and you've done everything from putting up front entry mitigation efforts, whether that's transmission x-ray, or FMD detection, and you're doing all the pat down checks and you're, even if you're implementing some sort of digital mail solution, so you've negated the drugs coming in through the mail, but you're still having contraband come into the facility, there's a possibility that drones are also a factor there. So, you need to understand that.

There are technologies out there that are able to help you understand what that threat is and then actually make some actionable recourse for apprehending the people on the outside. They're actually being part of this process of bringing drugs and contraband, and hopefully drugs is one thing, but weapons is on the horizon. So, I think it's just going to get worse.


David Lewin:

Or wait until the heavy, heavy lift drones come out and they just start zipping people out of the yard. Who knows? What happens when they get the drones on lock? What are they going to do next for contraband delivery? It seems like you get the front door locked down and you get the gates fences, you get all these, the mail, you shut down all these other pads, and then they turn to drones pretty heavily.


Neal Parsons: 

Yeah, plugging one hole and another hole appears, and that's the name of the game with correctional facilities, and it's nothing new for them.


David Lewin:

Totally. So, in closing, Neal, is there anything folks out there listening can do to help support the research that you're doing? I'm not sure if that's a yes or no, or if you've thought through that, but just if there's folks in correction directly that work in corrections or that or vendors or whatever the case, how do you like to collaborate? Is there anything that we can do to help you, I guess is the point?


Neal Parsons: 

Yeah, so I work for a program called the Criminal Justice Technology Testing and Evaluation Center. We do a lot of different research that ties into what we call the three Cs - cops, courts and corrections.

Having the ability to talk to practitioners is one of the things that we really like to do, to understand what are the issues that they're having, so then we can research the technology that may enable them to be more successful in their processes. And so, I would first of all say go to the CGA tech. We're still under the old name, which was the Criminal Justice Testing and Evaluation Consortium. It just changed slightly, but the website's out there, what I'll do is I'll post under this thread here a link to the contraband and corrections report that we put out a year and a half or so ago. It's still very relevant, and I think starting there, understanding the landscape of it.

And then if you're in corrections and you have any inquiries and you want to reach out to me directly, my name's on that report, and you're welcome to reach out and find me on LinkedIn.


David Lewin:

Awesome. Well, appreciate it, Neal. A question just popped up, “what do you do with captured devices?” I guess maybe I'm reading that as if they catch a drone that crashes and they capture it, do you mind speaking to that here from the last minute or two?


Neal Parsons: 

Well, you treat it as a piece of evidence right at that point, and what's on the drone can help you in your investigation as far as what the telemetry file holds - the location of where the drone originated from. I would also tend to think that you would look for physical evidence as far as fingerprints, DNA, any of those types of things that would help you in your investigation. And a lot of times when you buy a drone, the first thing you're going to do is test it out, and you're probably going to test it out someplace that could identify where that drone had been in the past. And I would say looking at telemetry files would be a step in the right direction.


David Lewin:

Totally. Thanks again, Neal. Really appreciate your time.


Neal Parsons: 

Yeah, good seeing you again.


Note: Minor edits have been made to the transcribed dialogue for clarity only. 

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Mitigating Drone Contraband at Prisons as Technology Evolves



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