Several Hong Kong prisons, including a maximum security institution, have been breached on a number of occasions by drones – unmanned aerial vehicles – which have flown over and fallen into the facilities. The Correctional Services Department (CSD) knew of the incidents, but they were not authorised to shoot down the drones.

The CSD confirmed to am730 newspaper that there have been three cases of drones “accidentally” falling into the prisons during the past five years. No unauthorised articles were found with the drones, but the CSD would not reveal the locations of the incidents, due to security concerns.

Drones were found to have flown over prisons and fallen into them. Photo: Wikicommons and Google Maps.

According to the Civil Aviation Department, “Model aircraft shall not be flown over, or close to, any object, installation or facility that would present a risk to safety in the event of damage due to any impact by the model aircraft, or in such a manner that the good order and discipline and control thereof may be or may likely be jeopardized.”

Sources in the CSD told the newspaper that two prisons in Hong Kong Island and one in the New Territories were breached, including the maximum security Tai Lam Centre for Women. The drones which fell into them were picked up by the prison staff.

A Hong Kong drone user told the newspaper that sometimes people flew drones at Tai Lam Chung Reservoir, which is close to the centre.

Rare cases

A veteran CSD officer told the newspaper that the cases of drones falling into institutions were rare.

“Around the end of last year or the beginning of this year, a drone fell into the Tai Lam [Centre], and a person came by and asked us to give back the drone, but we wouldn’t do so, as we didn’t know what the intention of the person was.”

As the drones are private property, and flying them into prisons was potentially a criminal offence, the institutions usually alert the police to the incident. The officer said institutions were concerned about the potential threats of the drones, in terms of security issues and the privacy of prisoners, for example, if the drones were taking photos of them. The officer added that prisons have been following the measures adopted by foreign institutions on handling drones.

A redevelopment plan of the Tai Lam Centre for Women. Photo: Gov HK.

No-fly zones

The CSD told the newspaper that there are related guidelines to remind staff to be alert, and that it is researching the relevant laws banning the use of drones around the institutions.

Peter Chiu Ping-kuen, Head of the Department of Engineering of Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education (Tsing Yi), told the newspaper that it is technically feasible to set up no-fly zones near the institutions.

“Software has to be installed into the drone, so that it knows where it is flying towards, and so that it will stop when at a certain distance from the ‘no-fly zones’ .”

However, he said that the manufacturers may not want to install such software as it could deter people from buying a drone if it cannot fly into certain places. He also suggested that institutions could install motion sensors on the periphery, to monitor the drones.

Legal regulations

The Civil Aviation Department told the newspaper that it would study the regulatory measures taken by foreign aviation authorities and the local situation to review and study appropriate amendments to laws.

Section 18 of the Prisons Ordinance states that any person who brings unauthorised articles into any prison shall be liable on conviction to a fine of $2000 and to imprisonment for 3 years.

Barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung told the newspaper that flying drones over prisons or barracks or any regulated facilities may not be a criminal offence, depending on the intention.

Luk added that if the drones were shot down, the owner can file a lawsuit and ask for compensation; but if the drones damaged private property, the property holder can ask for compensation as well.

Recently, a Hong Kong male tourist was detained in Cambodia after flying a drone over the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. He was released shortly afterwards.


Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.