CAMILLA, Ga. - Imagine the skies over a state prison nearly as busy as Hartsfield-Jackson. Filled not with planes, but with low-flying drones.
Officials told the FOX 5 I-Team on just one day at Autry State Prison in south Georgia they spotted 10 drones flying overhead. It's a 21st Century way to deliver drugs and cell phones over the prison walls, sometimes directly into the hands of the inmate.
"It's unnerving," admitted Clay Nix, director the Georgia Department of Corrections Office of Professional Standards. "If the drone can fly to an exact location utilizing GPS, the inmates who are retrieving it could retrieve their contraband in a matter of moments."
Retrieve the contraband by reaching through a hole in the prison window and grabbing the dangling payload from the drone itself. Hard to believe, but investigators insist that's what has happened.
Nix said drone sightings hit an all-time high at Georgia state prisons -- 138 since last July. Drones reduce the need for a corrupt guard to carry in the contraband.
Of the 33 state prisons, Autry is by far the biggest drone target. Sixty-seven sightings since last July, including a white DJI Phantom III. That turned out to also be the first catch for Autry's experimental drone detection system manufactured by Dedrone, a company based in San Francisco.
According to the case file, the detection system alerted to the drone late on February third of this year, prompting correctional officers to rush outside to scan the skies. The drone quickly retreated, but wound up stuck high up in some nearby trees.
Once authorities got it down, they discovered it was carrying two cell phones, four bags of crystal meth and one bag of marijuana. Plus one helpful fingerprint.
Investigators said it belongs to Adrian Cornelius Beall. He might be familiar with Autry.
"He should," agreed Nix. "He's been there."
Beall served time at Autry for burglary, possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute and other charges. He was released in December. He's now under arrest again.
Investigators also managed to download video from that seized drone, showing a juvenile who lives nearby testing out his flying abilities just four days before it would crash. His stepbrother also served time at Autry.
Authorities say that juvenile and his mother remain under investigation. Other arrests are expected.
"They can get anything in with a drone," agreed Autry state prison warden Walter Berry. "They just have to use their imagination."
The Department of Corrections is currently testing competing drone detection systems at Autry and nearby Calhoun state prison. They've spent no tax dollars yet. They first want to make sure it works.
So far, so good.
"We've been quite successful with the system at Autry State Prison in alerting that there's something or a drone in the area," explained Nix.
We offered to test it. The SkyFOX drone flew in from some nearby woods just south of the prison. Seconds later, an annoying alarm began ringing inside the prison control room.
Per protocol, the entire prison went into lockdown mode, all 1700 inmates sent to their cells as staffers rushed outside to search the skies for the intruder.
Unlike the system being tested at Calhoun, Autry's system can not pinpoint the location of the person flying the drone. But the warden said just knowing it's up there gives them a fighting chance.
"Sometimes we can actually deter the drone from coming in because once they see that everybody's locked down and everybody's looking the drone may actually take off and go back out to the wooded area."
With the inmates secured, officers search the grounds for contraband, including the roof of every building. They also do a head-count, just in case the drone attack is just a diversion for a well-planned escape.
The alarm doesn't stop until the drone leaves prison airspace. Warden Berry gets the alerts sent directly to his cell phone. They average at least one a week, often in the middle of the night.
He said he'd love to see a system installed permanently. His grade for this test: A-plus
"It's very vital to mission," Berry insisted.