DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – Artificial intelligence technology being developed at Duke University is helping to stop contraband from being dropped into North Carolina prisons.

A bird’s nest, a fighter pilot, and a landscape architect appear to be the answer to the airdropped contraband.

“This is potentially a very deadly problem that they have. And so, what we need to know, what they need to know, is (when) a drone on its way. Because, if they know a drone is in the general vicinity, then they can put out the right people. They can put out the patrols in the way that they need so that they can maximize coverage at that time,” said Dr. Missy Cummings.

Cummings was one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots. More recently, she has been a professor at Duke University specializing in autonomous vehicles.

“The prisons just need to know that someone’s out there,” Cummings said.

Cummings and her collaborators have developed a detection system that alerts the prison of incoming drones.

“So, it listens for drones flying nearby. And so, we’ve spent the last couple of years developing some artificial intelligence that learns how to listen for certain kind of drones and can ignore other aircraft in the sky,” she explained.

At her side is Clemson professor and landscape architect Dr. Hala Nassar.

“Anything we install in the prison campus has to be camouflaged enough not to stick out in the landscape, not to be visible,” she said. That means a very landscape assessment for each prison.

“Like vegetation, density, season, how does the landscape look in the winter versus the summer, what are the angles and line of sight, where are drones possibly coming from, how close can they come to people, what are the areas that are most vulnerable,” Nassar questioned.

That information is being used to build giant bird nests that blend sticks and branches with solar power and an acoustic-detection system.

There are other drone detection systems out there, but they are very expensive and require a lot of manpower. They can easily cost six figures.

This new detection system, though, is only a few hundred dollars. Prisons need about five of them. For a cash-strapped prison system, cost matters.

“The true unique contribution that we’re making with this project is to make a very low-cost sensor, and by very low cost, the system itself and the equipment that goes with it is only a couple of hundred dollars,” Cummings.

That makes it easier to not only detect a drone but also catch the person operating it.

“It’s truly an interdisciplinary beyond my imagination or our imagination when we started doing this” added Nassar.

The system will be tested at two undisclosed prisons for six months before being implemented system-wide.

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