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Duke Lab Developing Drone Detecting App For Prisons

Drone in flight
Don McCullough
Flickr Creative Commons

An app being developed by engineers at Duke University could help prison officials prevent drones from delivering contraband to inmates.A spokesman with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety said the agency does not have statistics on the number of drone-related contraband deliveries made to state prisons. Anecdotally, however, staff either spotted a drone in or near a prison, or recovered one crashed, a handful of times last year.

“Even if it happens one time, it is a problem for us,” said Loris Sutton, assistant director for the Security Accountability Section of Prisons, in an email response to a WUNC inquiry. “We are hoping this research helps us to eliminate this criminal activity. We are grateful for Duke’s research on cutting edge technology that may help us to enhance security at our prisons.”

For performance venue operators, the concern is drones that could cause a public safety hazard or non-ticket holders trying to see an event without paying.

The Duke University Humans and Autonomy Laboratory has been developing an audio sensor and software system that can detect rogue drones and text an alert via an app on a hand-held device.

"State agencies and outdoor theaters, for example, could buy very expensive jamming devices that have a lot of maintenance and support labor," said Missy Cummings, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Duke and director of the Humans and Autonomy lab. But because of the prohibitive, seven-figure cost of such approaches, she added, "that's just not feasible."

So the lab has been developing a low-cost approach to drone detection and prevention. One microphone unit and the app would cost a customers around $200.

Testing of the system will now begin at Cary's Koka Booth Amphitheater and Scotland Correctional Institution, a high-security state prison.

Cummings said the system needs another six months or so of field testing to iron out kinks, especially false alarms.

"One of the problems that we know that we have, right away, are weed eaters and leaf blowers," she explained. "It turns out drones sound like annoying weed eaters."

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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