IONIA COUNTY, MICH. - Multiple emergency responders were called to the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility near Ionia Wednesday night after several drones were spotted in the air inside the perimeter of the facility.
None of the drones were captured and the pilots were not found.
It's been a continuing problem for the Michigan State Police and the Michigan Department of Corrections as they try to keep a secure environment without having total control over the airspace over the facilities.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has the power to control airspace in the United States. The agency currently does not have no-fly zones over prisons across Michigan. That means those who have obtained certification to fly drones commercially can legally fly their drones over prisons.
Leaders at the Michigan State Police and Michigan Department of Corrections say they will attempt to charge those who fly drones over the prisons with a type of trespassing charge. There are still questions whether that criminal charge would stick considering there are few, if any, precedents in court regarding drone usage.
"We're researching every defense that there is out there to combat drones and we have put some counter measures in place in prisons," Michigan State Police Detective Sgt. Christian Clute said. "Unfortunately, though, there is not one antidote at this point."
He's referring to the inability of the Department of Corrections to control the airspace.
The Michigan State Police acknowledges drones have sneaked contraband into their facilities. In one case it was undetected for nearly two months.
Inmates at Richard A. Handlon Correctional facility near Ionia received two packages dropped by a drone in late May. Other packages have been intercepted that contained tobacco, phones and marijuana.
Leaders at the Department of Corrections remind people there are severe penalties for people who would use a drone to smuggle items into the facility
In addition, Clute said people who fly drones, particularly hobbyists, have to understand flying a drone over the prison sends the facility into an emergency that can create safety issues for workers inside. The concern is the drones can upset prisoners who expect normalcy inside the prison, not to mention many other potential threats.
In the worst case scenario, there are concerns somebody could use a drone to drop a weapon into the facility.
"They (drones) pose significant complications because they move so quickly, they're so small and they can carry a small payload," Ionia Co. Prosecuting Attorney Kyle Butler said. "The ultimate concern is them dropping in a weapon of some sort."
That's why Michigan's government put together a task force to look at issues resulting from drone usage. The Unmanned Aircraft Task Force has close to two dozen members and has met multiple times and is preparing to make recommendations and bring solutions to Gov. Rick Snyder's office and to lawmakers by December
One result of the task force could be the recommendation of no-fly zones but that, we are told, could be met with resistance from the FAA refusing to let states regulate airspace. State leaders are trying to figure out what kind of control state lawmakers can exert.
One bit of good news is that some of the largest drone makers, including DJI, stop drone pilots from flying directly over prisons using the company's software. Pilots are forced to use the computer program to fly the drone and the program won't allow a drone to fly into certain areas including over prisons.
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