A company called Skydroid was awarded £237,000 by the Ministry of Justice last year to work on a proof of concept to protect UK prisons from illegal drone-based smuggling.
The dropping of contraband using store-bought quadcopters has made headlines on a number of occasions over the past year.
Company registration details reveal that Skydroid is a Salisbury-based mutual, incorporated in 2008 and registered to ‘Mr Mark Lawrence’. The Telegraph has described the company as being led by a “former police officer”, which rules out Superintendent Mark Lawrence of the Metropolitan Police.
Little else is known about the company, but Skydroid (not to be confused with the SkyDroid golfing app) produces drone policing technology. Its website is currently offline.
According to contract analyst Tussell, Skydroid, which has reportedly provided drone services for the Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey, the Surrey Constabulary and the Crown Commercial Service, was awarded a contract running for 11 months from April 2017. The Telegraph reports that the company’s technology will go live on 1 April this year.
So what’s behind the story? Internet of Business investigates.
Preventing drone smuggling
Late last year the Ministry of Justice set aside £7 million and issued a “prior information notice” to the security industry, inviting bidders to pitch solutions to halt the growing number of drones being used to smuggle drugs, phones, and even weapons into prisons around the country.
Operation Trenton, a combined taskforce made up of police and prison service investigators, is thought to have recovered more than 150 drones between 2015 and September 2017 on prison property in England and Wales.
Despite the high-profile nature of drone contraband deliveries into UK prisons, the majority of drugs, weapons, escape equipment. and mobile phones are smuggled in using more conventional methods. However, it’s an issue that the government is taking seriously.
On the face of it, drone flights over prisons represent a simpler security threat than drone incursions at sporting events or tourist locations. There is little risk of weaponisation, so in theory all approaches – from jamming the connection between drone and operator to shooting it down – are on the table.
With 85 percent of the consumer drone market, it’s inevitable that Chinese giant DJI is regularly named in news reports on drone prison deliveries. However, the manufacturer already has a solution of sorts in place to prevent its drones from flying where they shouldn’t: geofencing.
DJI’s GEO System sets up virtual fences in the sky to ensure certain airspace is off-limits to its pilots. The aim is to prevent DJI drones from flying over sensitive GPS locations. Currently, HM prisons and UK airports are among a number of ‘Restricted Zones’ pre-programmed to require authorisation before pilots can fly there.
However, criminals seeking to evade DJI’s Geo don’t need to try too hard. Using a drone from another manufacturer is an obvious option, but DJI’s aircraft have also proved to be vulnerable to hackers and, ironically, jailbreaking, in recent months.
Speaking to Internet of Business, Christian Struwe, DJI’s head of European public policy, explains that the company’s safety systems, which include GEO and the recently launched Aeroscope, are primarily designed to stop accidental incursions. Although the later can provide useful situational awareness.
“DJI has its GEO system in place over most sensitive locations, including airports and prisons, which serves to limit the unintentional use of drones over restricted areas, as well as making it as difficult as possible misuse drone technology.”
Reading between the lines, it may be that more proactive measures are necessary from local authorities armed with specialised technology, in order to prevent drone deliveries into prisons and other illegal deployments.
Current regulations don’t yet force manufacturers to ensure their drones transmit identifiable information on their ownership or whereabouts, although these capabilities do exist. And registration in the UK is still not mandatory for recreational pilots.
The UK government’s upcoming Drone Bill and the EU’s U-Space programme could help to bridge that gap in the coming months.
Will barriers stifle drone entrepreneurs?
Richard Gill, founder and CEO of Drone Defence, points to the delicate balancing act between encouraging innovation and preventing illegal actions.
“The Government has to take its time to consider the extent of the drone problems faced by the prisons estate and find potential viable solutions. This process, understandably, has to be thorough to ensure taxpayers’ money is spent responsibly,” he says.
However, doing more to integrate drones into the national airspace, through registration schemes or remote identification, will not be enough to stop criminals breaking the law.
“Drone registration will not affect drugs being flown into prisons,” he explains. “The criminal is very unlikely to register their drone, and so the only people affected by registration and drone ID would be innocent users.
“My fear is that any type of barrier to drone use or ownership might stifle the entrepreneurs who are looking to drone technology for future commercial products and services. There are better solutions to actively enforce the current laws.”
Internet of Business says
And that’s presumably where Skydroid and other solutions come in.
However, one of the problems that the UK faces – alongside the US – is a conservative aerospace industry culture, which holds the drone and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) sector at arm’s length. Autonomous airspace companies are poorly represented on industry bodies – if at all, in some cases.
Meanwhile, the popular media consistently associate drones with criminal behaviour, just as newspapers link robotics with mass unemployment, Terminators, and apocalyptic scenarios. This poses a significant risk to the nascent industry at a time when policymaking is prone to be led by populist outrage.
Elsewhere, countries like Singapore, China, and United Arab Emirates are forging ahead with unmanned systems, including for passenger services, led by a very different vision: a clear ambition to lead these sectors in the future.