FORSYTH, Ga. - An alarming jump in the number of drone sightings near Georgia state prisons has authorities worried and looking for answers.
From 2013 through last year, Georgia prison staff spotted a total of three drones flying overhead.
In the first six months of this year, they've spotted 35 drones.
Officers have recovered several drones along with the contraband attached, usually with some fishing line that can be released by remote control. Typically, the packages being delivered include cell phones, chargers, and tobacco, all valuable commodities behind bars.
But authorities fear drones could soon deliver packages far more dangerous: guns.
“I would say the biggest fear for any of us is a gun be introduced into the prison system because with that they could overtake our staff," admitted Georgia Department of Corrections Director of Professional Standards Clay Nix.
That fear is not unfounded. Last month authorities in South Carolina say inmate Jimmy Causey used wire cutters delivered by drone to cut through multiple layers of fence and make his escape. He was eventually recaptured in Texas.
Drones are getting more affordable -- an off-the-shelf model can cost around $1200 -- and if they're used multiple times they can quickly earn a profit for a diligent smuggler.
Authorities say two men arrested in Mitchell County had a drone near Autry State prison with black tape covering the security lights. When authorities downloaded the drone trip data, they say it showed the same drone had flown over Wheeler Correctional Institute four times in one evening. The next night, the drone flew to Autry four separate times. The two facilities are 120 miles apart.
"It's frustrating," conceded deputy director Nix. "Because it tells you that's how they're beating you.”
Nix says an inmate inside the prison can actually guide the drone to his location, using an app on a cell phone already smuggled inside.
In fact, the trip data downloaded from that Autry drone shows a destination of "G2," one of the cell blocks there.
“They can fly the drone with GPS technology right to a certain point to meet an individual who's waiting," Nix explained.
So what can be done to stop this aerial attack?
“Before you weren't looking over the fence because nothing was coming over – maybe thrown over the fence – but it wasn't flying over the fence," Nix explained. “They're looking up now. They're listening when they're outside... knowing that this is occurring.”
For years, the Department of Corrections has tested cutting edge technology -- at a cost of more than $2 million at just three prisons -- in an attempt to spot or block smuggled cell phones. Yet inmates still find corners of the prison where the calls can get out.
The number of seized cell phones is still staggering, but at least heading in the right direction: 11,147 phones seized in 2015, 9,587 last year and on pace for under 9000 this year.
Soon the GDC will roll out new drone defense measures at one test prison at no cost, an early detection system for incoming drones.
Officials also wonder whether drones could be programmed to not fly over prison locations, much like they're blocked over major airports like Hartsfield-Jackson.
“A lot of the drones come pre-programmed where the coordinates of an airport are," Nix stated. "It'll just shut down. So we would like to incorporate that technology into drones to program them where the prisons are.”
In the meantime, prison staff will continue to look up... and listen.