Anti-drone technology could be introduced in English prisons

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By Matthew Weaver

Government U-turn likely after successful trial of signal blocking system in Guernsey

The government could introduce an anti-drone system to stop drug smuggling in English prisons after a successful six-month experiment in Guernsey prompted ministers to consider a U-turn about the technology.

Prison governors and officers and the chief inspector of prisons have expressed frustration at the failure of HM Prison Service to use technology to prevent drone smuggling fuelling the growing drug problem in jails.

Ministers had been resisting implementing the system on cost grounds, but on Tuesday, the prisons minister, Rory Stewart, told MPs officials were considering rolling out the scheme.

“We are looking at an electronic fencing technique which has been deployed in Guernsey,” he said. “If that electronic fence in Guernsey works, it is a good cheap solution. We need to check out its technical specifications and then we could look at rolling it out.”

Mitch Albutt, the national officer at the Prison Governors Association, said: “You would think that if you have a good system that greatly reduces supply, then it would be implemented, especially at that price.”

The problem of drone smuggling was highlighted by the conviction in October of seven members of a gang who airlifted £500,000 worth of drugs into prisons.

In his annual report, the chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, said the ready availability of drugs in prisons contributed to an alarming rise in violence.

He criticised the Prison Service for being too slow to introduce technology that deterred drugs from being brought into jails. “We have seen examples of how effective this technology can be, but so far it is only being used in a very few locations,” he wrote.

One of Clarke’s predecessors, David Ramsbotham, said every prison should install a Guernsey-style drone fence to make prison “safer and more orderly”.

Under the 2012 Prison Act, prisons can block mobile phone signals. The authorities in Guernsey amended this legislation to include drones.

SkyFence has been activated on average 32 times per month, mainly after detecting drones being used for innocent purposes near the prison. However it has picked up some suspicious activity, including a week in the summer when drones were detected at about 2am several days in a row.

The government is understood to be anxious to avoid potentially costly legal fees if property is damaged or people are hurt by drones intercepted around prisons. Matthews said SkyFence only blocked signals rather than knocking drones to the ground. Once the signal was lost all drones had inbuilt homing systems that returned them to their operator.

Elliott Cockett, who runs a business in Guernsey called Drone Ranger, tested the system by trying to breach the perimeter, but he failed. “I was amazed it worked so well,” he said. “It doesn’t tamper with the drone, it just blocks the communication between the remote and the drone.”

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