Politics

Corrections Canada turns to detection equipment to fight contraband drone drops

Canada's federal prisons will soon have a new weapon against a threat from above: Drones delivering drugs, cellphones and other dangerous contraband inside prison walls.

The Correctional Service of Canada will unveil a $6M pilot drone detection program

In this Tuesday, Aug, 7, 2018, photo, a Wing Hummingbird drone carries a package as it leaves its launch site during a delivery flight demonstration in Blacksburg, Va. (Michael Shroyer via Associated Press)

Canada's federal prisons will soon have a new weapon against a threat from above: Drones delivering drugs, cellphones and other dangerous contraband inside prison walls.

The Correctional Service of Canada will be spending $6 million to install radar-based drone detection equipment at six facilities following a spike in drone incidents.

Staff members have reported finding fragments of drones on prison grounds, or spotting the unmanned aerial devices flying above prison facilities at night.

Ghislain Sauvé, a director general with the Correctional Service of Canada, tells CBC News the prison service is fighting back.

"We want to eliminate to the maximum degree possible contraband coming into our institutions," Sauvé said. "It's becoming more and more common that drones are observed over institutions. It's more and more common that we're observing them dropping packages."

Sauvé wouldn't disclose exact numbers, but said that since 2015, the Correctional Service of Canada has seen an uptick in drone incidents.

The federal agency has launched a tender inviting companies to bid on a contract to build a radar system that would detect drones in the air and packages thrown over prison walls and fences.

Ghislain Sauvé is a director general with the Correctional Service of Canada. (Marc Robichaud/ CBC)

The equipment is to be installed on a trial basis at six of the 43 Correctional Services Canada institutions — in Dorchester, N.B., Mission, B.C., and Collins Bay, Ont., and Cowansville and Donnacona in Quebec.

Sauvé said Quebec facilities have reported the most drone incidents.

The goal is to have detection equipment running in one institution by March 2020, and then in the remaining five sites by March 2022.

'Massive industry that is growing'

Version2, an Ottawa-based company developing drone detection technology, reports a surge in demand for its services.

President Peter Jones said most of his clients are law enforcement organizations that don't want criminals or the general public spying on police operations or crime scenes.

Jones said airports have been showing interest in the technology as well. A rash of drone sightings grounded flights at London's Gatwick airport at the peak of Christmas travel in 2018.

"It is an incredibly massive industry that is growing," Jones said. "You can get everything from small detectors, like ours, to massive systems from all the major defence manufacturers that cost millions or tens of millions of dollars."

Jones's system, which can be installed as a permanent or portable set-up, detects radio waves drones emit within four kilometres. An internet browser-based program emits an audible alert and shows users on a map where the drone is flying.

Peter Jones installs an antenna on his car on June 4 in Ottawa. His company, Version2, is developing drone detection technology. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Weapons by drone-drop

The union that represents workers inside federal penitentiaries has been sounding the alarm about drones and illegal drugs entering prisons for years. Jeff Wilkins, national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said drugs fuel violent interactions among inmates and toward prison guards.

Wilkins said he worries that drones eventually could start delivering weapons, ammunition and explosives inside the walls. 

"There's also the potential that the payloads drones carry can be even greater," Wilkins said. "And weapons could be introduced inside."

He said his union will be monitoring the results of the pilot.

Jeff Wilkins, national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, says he worries that drones eventually could start delivering weapons or explosives inside prisons. (Chris Rands/ CBC)

How do you stop a drone?

The CSC still hasn't addressed one question: How do you stop a drone once it's detected?

Sauvé told CBC there are companies and organizations that use nets, attack drones and even eagles to intercept predator drones — but he's not confident those are practical options.

There's always a risk that an intercepted drone could drop out of the sky and injure an inmate or staff member, he said.

For now, Sauvé said, the federal department will focus on identifying aerial intrusions and using that information to limit inmate access to drop areas and to target patrols on prison grounds and in cells.

"We're going to make sure we get a system that works," Sauvé said. "And once we're satisfied with that ... there'll be more decisions in the future."

The pilot project will end in March 2023 and a review will be conducted to determine how best to deploy a national solution.

The CBC's David Thurton can be reached on FacebookTwitter or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca.


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About the Author

David Thurton is a national reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He's worked for CBC in Fort McMurray, the Maritimes and in Canada's Arctic.

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