Two men have been apprehended in Maryland first-ever case of using a drone to smuggle drugs, tobacco, and pornography into a prison.
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Officers stated in court documents that they found the four-rotor mini-helicopter on the rear passenger seat of a Ford pickup truck parked outside the state prison complex near Cumberland on Saturday evening.
They said they also found a handgun and six plastic-wrapped packages that contained packets of pornographic DVDs, buprenorphine, rolling papers, and synthetic marijuana.
The threat of contraband drone deliveries was tagged “an emerging problem” by Corrections Secretary Stephens T. Moyer for the prison system, and said officials were researching ways to put a stop to it. He also revealed that drone-detecting technology would cost between $350,000 and $400,000 per establishment.
“Contraband fuels violence, and we are committed to keeping it out for the safety of our staff and the inmates,” Moyer said.
The two suspects—Thaddeus Shortz, 25, of Knoxville in Frederick County and Keith Brian Russell, 29, of Silver Spring—will each face multiple drug and gun-related charges in connection with the incident.
Moyer said officers from the Western Correctional Institution, a maximum-security facility in Cumberland, spotted the vehicle on a side road off U.S. 220 near the prison building about 8:00 p.m. Saturday, April 25, 2015.
The vehicle and its occupants had been under surveillance “thanks to a great deal of intelligence information,” according to Moyer.
It was written in the charging documents that a state trooper and a member of the C31 Narcotics Unit, a law enforcement task force in Allegany County, received information that Shortz, a former state prison inmate, would be trying to fly a drone over the Western Correctional Institution.
A surveillance operation was set up outside the prison complex, authorities wrote, and watched two men, later recognized as Shortz and Russell, walk out of a Ford pickup and gaze around using binoculars.
The men were apprehended, authorities wrote, after officers found the drone on a passenger seat of the truck and the remote control was on the floor behind the driver’s seat.
Matt Scassero, the head of the University of Maryland’s drone testing center, said there have been cases of successful airborne delivery of contraband to prisons, and he expects to see more in the future.
“Just like any other technology, you have good uses and bad uses,” he said.
Scassero said new laws might be needed to deal with such plots. He envisions prison systems hiring companies that are adapting military technology to detect and stop the vehicles.
Corporations and academic researchers are looking at a range of methods including radar, lasers, and cameras for sensing drones.
Once an unauthorized drone has been targeted, it’s a question of stopping it without causing harm to anyone on the ground below, potentially by taking over its controls or trapping it in a net.
“You need a variety of technologies,” Scassero said.
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