Drone technology is advancing at a remarkable pace, with numerous companies racing to put unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to commercial use. Only last week, delivery firm UPS announced it is already using drones to deliver packages in some areas, while UK mobile operator EE has been exploring the use of UAVs to provide 4G access to rural communities with poor mobile internet coverage.
Like other significant disruptive technologies, drones have also caught the attention of organised criminals, who are coming up with new and innovative ways of incorporating the use of UAVs into their existing illegal activities. In its Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment (SOCTA) 2017, Europol predicts that criminal use of drones will grow as the technology advances, and the unmanned miniature planes are able to travel greater distances and carry heavier loads.
The truth is that organised crime groups are already taking advantage of the easy availability of reasonably-advanced drone technology, which can be purchased freely from mainstream retailers relatively cheaply. Below we examine some of the existing and emerging criminal use cases for drone technology, and take a look at how law enforcement agencies are countering the growing problem.
Prison contraband drops
Before the advent of drone technology, anybody wanting to get contraband into jails without smuggling it in themselves or bribing a crooked prison officer had few options. Thanks to UAVs, the practice of stuffing drugs into dead birds or cut-open tennis balls before launching them over prison walls into exercise yards is now largely a thing of past.
In recent years, prisons the world over have been battling a growing trend of criminals using drones to smuggle drugs, mobile phones and other contraband to inmates. Often acting at night, UAV operators typically fly their craft and its illicit cargo close to the cell window of the intended recipient, who is then able to take delivery before the drone flies off.
As some types of contraband can fetch more inside than out on the streets, the incentive to smuggle illegal goods into jails can be strong, resulting in these types of drone drops increasing exponentially as the technology has become more widely available. While incidents of prison contraband drops facilitated by drones have been recorded all over the world, the problem has been particularly acute in the UK, where a special police unit has been formed to tackle the issue.
Concerns have also been raised that drones could be used by major drug smuggling gangs to avoid customs checks at borders, allowing them to fly their illicit products transnationally with little risk of being caught. While current UAV technology is limiting for drug traffickers in terms of the distance drones can travel and how much weight they can carry, evidence has already emerged that smuggling gangs are looking to use unmanned planes to help them move shipments across borders.
Colombian police said last November they had found evidence that traffickers operating on the country’s northwest coast were planning use a drone to smuggle cocaine over to Panama. Officers found cocaine buried on a beach, along with parts for a drone that had the capacity to carry up to 10kgs of the drug as far as 100kms. In August 2015, two men admitted retrieving heroin near a California highway that had been flown over the US border with Mexico, marking the first time American authorities had encountered a cross-border smuggling attempt facilitated by a UAV.
“Drone technology is expected to advance allowing drones to travel greater distances and carry heavier loads as well as making them more affordable,” Europol said in its most recent SOCTA.
“[Organised crime groups] involved in drug trafficking will likely invest in drone technology for trafficking purposes in order to avoid checks at border crossing points, ports and airports.”
The prospect of Islamist terror organisations using drone technology to deliver a bomb has worried security experts for years, with a report published in 2016 by conflict resolution organisation PAX and Armament Research Services (ARES) suggesting it is only a matter of time before jihadi militants use a UAV in a major attack. In January last year, the Oxford Research Group’s Remote Control project warned that drones are an affordable and effective way for terrorists to deliver improvised explosive devices, and that they could be used to target nuclear power stations and foreign embassies.
As well as using their own UAVs to launch attacks, extremists could also hack into drones used by government agencies and private firms such as Amazon, which like UPS plans to use unmanned planes for deliveries. Earlier this year, a court in Israel jailed a computer engineer for nine years after he was found guilty of hacking government drones for Islamic Jihad.
Child Sexual Exploitation
In August last year, figures obtained by the Independent under a Freedom of Information request revealed that police in the UK had received reports of suspicious drone activity around children, raising the prospect that paedophiles could be using UAVs to film and monitor minors. According to an earlier report from the Times, incidents of drones apparently spying on sunbathing teenage girls have also been reported in Britain.
Law enforcement agencies and private security firms are fighting back against the use of drones by organised criminals, coming up with a variety of methods to thwart the illegal use of UAVs.
In France and the Netherlands, police are training eagles to take down rogue drones flying in restricted airspace. Elsewhere, numerous private companies have come up with a variety of ways to combat drones involved in illegal activity, including guns that shoot them out of the sky, capturing them with nets and Wi-Fi jammers that cut them off from their operators. Other innovations promise to detect radio-controlled aircraft and locate their operators on a map, allowing police to track down individuals using the devices to carry out criminal acts.