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  • Writer's pictureSimon Golstein

UK creates new no-fly-zones around correctional institutions nationwide

Updated: Jan 30

On January 25, 2024, regulations came into force across England and Wales making it an automatic criminal offense to fly a drone within 400 meters of any prison or young offenders’ institution. The penalty for breaking this rule is a fine of up to £2,500 - and, needless to say, custodial sentences if caught smuggling.


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Prior to this, UK police were only permitted to prevent drones when they had evidence that they were being used to smuggle contraband. There have been 70 such convictions since 2016 and 504 drone sightings around prisons between 2019 and 2021 - naturally, these numbers do not include drones that were not spotted.

 

A global problem

 

French authorities reported over 600 drone incursions into prisons throughout 2023, with scarcely a single prison not experiencing this at least once, and some daily. In British Colombia, Canada, the president of the Canadian prison officer’s union stated that 75 percent of all seized contraband came from drones. In the US, the Department of Justice reported 130 incidents between 2015 and 2019 - but Federal Bureau of Prisons only started recording incidents in 2018, and the true number is likely much higher.

 

Drones offer an effective way to smuggle contraband into prisons because of their ability to fly over the walls and carry and drop payloads with precision, and at little risk to the pilot who can be a considerable distance away. Small drones are also practically invisible to human eyes when they’re flying high enough.

 

The UK government's stipulation of 400 meters will create no-fly-zones of considerable size around these institutions, not only preventing smuggling but also intelligence breaches - drones will no longer be able to film inside prisons, and authorities will have greater authority to stop any and all drone flights in the immediate vicinity.

 

However, the government did not not announce any intention to adopt new technology to combat this new threat, and without specialist technology, it will be difficult to enforce this new rule. One incident highlighting this issue was earlier this year when a drone carrying illicit substances crashed next to HMP Edinburgh. Police were required to ask for help from the public to find the operator of this drone, who has still not been identified.

 

How can authorities manage their airspaces? 

 

As drones fill our airspace, it’s vital for authorities to adopt technology designed to manage this new form of air traffic - which means both registered drones and unregistered, unidentified ones too. Luckily, this technology is here and ready for deployment. Uncrewed traffic management (UTM) platforms are designed to monitor drone activity in real time, just as air traffic management systems track traditional aviation. These systems rely on drones themselves broadcasting their telemetry - a requirement which has already been made law by the US FAA and Europe’s EASA. 

 

Drones that do not transmit telemetry are already being phased out of production, and leading UTM systems like High Lander’s Vega UTM can scan and detect all broadcasting drones, even if they are not directly connected to that network. This is creating a situation in which drones that do not identify itself to the local UTM automatically become suspicious - just as an airplane that refuses to identify itself would be treated as an enemy in any sovereign airspace. 

 

Of course, there will always be those who aim to circumvent the law. In these circumstances, UTM systems can rely on drone detection and mitigation solutions, which can be extremely effective at ranges of several kilometers. For example, High Lander’s Vega UTM is integrated with Sentrycs drone mitigation systems, which can detect non-broadcasting drones at ranges of up to 5 kilometers and safely ground them as they come closer.

 

It is unfortunate that some would use drones for illegal purposes, but not surprising – they are capable and versatile tools that lend themselves to any application. However, with the supporting infrastructure in place, it will become equally easy for authorities to ensure that drone use is both safe an responsible – and enforce these requirements when necessary.

 

 

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