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Research Questions

  1. What are key challenges and opportunities associated with preventing, detecting, and responding to drone incidents?
  2. What are the highest-priority needs? That is, which needs, if addressed, would have the greatest impact on countering the threats posted by drones?

Drones represent a serious emerging threat to the safety and security of correctional institutions across the United States. Conspirators are using drones to introduce various contraband, such as drugs and cell phones, into correctional institutions. In some cases, drones have been used to deliver weapons and tools to facilitate escape.

Contraband trafficking in correctional institutions is highly lucrative, and drones can be an effective and relatively low-risk method of introducing large quantities in a single flight. For example, it can be challenging for a correctional institution to detect a drone entering its airspace. If a drone is detected, it can be difficult for the institution to respond quickly enough that any contraband dropped is intercepted before it reaches the incarcerated population. Furthermore, while there are examples of successful prosecutions, it is often challenging to hold conspirators accountable. Practical and legal restrictions prohibit neutralizing or actively defeating drones; therefore, a multilayered approach combining drone detection technologies, core correctional practices, forensics and other investigative techniques, and partnerships with law enforcement at the state and federal levels is currently the most effective way to address this threat.

This report presents findings and recommendations from a workshop held to explore key needs that must be met to better address the drone threat. The findings are pertinent to a wide audience, including justice-system stakeholders, correctional practitioners, technology developers, and researchers.

Key Findings

  • There is no standard definition of what constitutes a "drone incident" (e.g., suspected or confirmed sighting, suspected or confirmed drop, drone recovery), which makes it challenging to quantify the scope of the problem and make comparisons across facilities or systems.
  • Drones represent a relatively new challenge for the corrections sector, and guidance is needed to help determine and implement the best approach to address the challenge.
  • Drone technologies and drone detection technologies are rapidly evolving, and it can be challenging to obtain useful and objective information.
  • As drone technology and threats evolve, current detection solutions may be rendered less effective, which can deter agencies from investing in them.
  • Drone detection technologies can be cost-prohibitive; many agencies lack dedicated grant writers, which can deter them from applying for funding.
  • Existing drone detection technologies have gaps and are not 100 percent effective.
  • Drone incidents are often highly coordinated by criminal organizations, which can make interdiction challenging.
  • Basic correctional strategies and practices and human capital can be a critical part of a multilayered approach to combat drone incidents and contraband delivery.


  • Develop standard terminology and best practices for more-granular reporting of drone incidents.
  • Develop corrections-specific vulnerability assessment tools for drone incidents based on relevant factors.
  • Develop guidebooks to help agencies identify their needs, and articulate operational requirements and specific objectives for each facility.
  • Develop and maintain a clearinghouse or directory of commercially available detection solutions that includes such data as the technology used, spectrum of detection capabilities, limitations, costs, legal and regulatory compliance, and correctional facility deployments and points of contact.
  • Develop guidance and educational materials to help agencies assess the projected future landscape of drone technology and drone detection technology and to help them understand and manage risks associated with obsolescence and technology lock-in.
  • Develop selection and application guides to help agencies effectively implement and operationalize solutions.
  • Develop resources and support to help those agencies that do not have grant-writing expertise prepare quality proposals.
  • Develop minimum performance standards for drone detection solutions.
  • Conduct operational evaluations of configurations of layered approaches to determine the most-effective methods of deterring drone activity and/or detecting drones in a timely manner to allow staff to intercept contraband.
  • Develop models for determining the return on investment of both individual solutions and solutions used in combination as part of a multilayered approach.
  • Develop best practices for using intelligence sources to interdict and/or investigate drone incidents.
  • Develop a national data-sharing system to report and track drone incidents.
  • Develop best practices and case studies documenting effective approaches.

Research conducted by

This research was prepared for the National Institute of Justice and conducted within the Justice Policy Program of RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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