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Special delivery: Drones used to smuggle drugs into prison

Anti-smuggling technology that could control errant drones already exists according to the Criminal Sanctions Agency, but Finnish legislation prohibits its use.

Smugglers have found a new use for easily obtainable drones. Pictured drone unrelated to the article. Image: Caroline Blumberg / EPA

Drones have become accessible to everyday consumers in a short time, with some companies just starting to plan widespread delivery services using the flying robots. But some people have already put them to effective criminal use as smuggling devices.

In May, guards witnessed a strange sight as an unmanned aerial vehicle landed in the yard of an unnamed prison in Finland. Attached to the drone with fishing line was a sock containing a cell phone, an ion battery and a copious amount of Subutex brand buprenorphine tablets.

The package was likely intended for an inmate, but was intercepted by prison staff. The drone was programmed to return to its point of origin about one kilometre from the site automatically. The operator was not apprehended.

This was just one of several similar cases in the last couple of year, according to Tommi Saarinen, a specialist at the Criminal Sanctions Agency.

"I believe instances of aerial smuggling will only increase. Drones are easily obtainable, they are now akin to playthings in the civilian world," Saarinen says.

High yield, low risk

Smuggling by drone is a low-risk enterprise, as the machines can be controlled remotely from many kilometres away and programmed to return automatically, as in the case described above. The identities of people who purchase drones are not registered, and so there may be no way to catch a smuggler-via-drone even if the device is recovered.

The potential for criminal gain is also very high for high-flying bootleggers. The value of narcotics especially skyrockets in prison.

"The street value of a single Subutex pill can be as low as 12 euros. In prison it can be ten times that. Thus the risk of losing the drone is small compared to the possible earnings," Saarinen says.

Even small drones can carry loads of several kilograms, making it possible to transfer other dangerous items such as handguns.

Saarinen says that while drones – which are small and almost silent – could be shot down with firearms, water cannons or nets, organising a task force to monitor the skies would require a great deal of resources.

Legislation prohibits hacking as countermeasure

A simple solution exists that could quell all drone-delivered contraband hopes. Drones use a radio signal that can be detected with special equipment. Once the signal is picked up, the device can be controlled and forced to the ground.

"The technology certainly exists. But currently Finnish law does not allow such measures," Saarinen says.

Nonetheless, the equipment in question is being tested in Finnish prisons; but only for detection, not for seizing control.