BT deploys fleet of drones to catch criminals stealing broadband cables

Drone
Drone

BT has deployed a fleet of drones to catch criminals stealing broadband cables after a surge in copper prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to a spike in offences.

Openreach, BT’s network division, has reported around 360 metal theft incidents to the police so far this year, with around 188km of cable ripped out of the ground.

While the crimes are taking place across the country, particular hotspots include Essex and Kent.

The drones form part of Openreach’s security response to cable thefts amid concerns the incidents are causing lengthy internet outages for remote rural areas.

Breaks in the network trigger an alarm, which notifies the police and enables members of the company’s security team to deploy drones in the area.

The drones, some of which carry night vision and spotlights, are then used to track the thieves and recover the cables.

Offenders tend to operate at night in rural areas, using 4x4s to drag cables away – often over large distances through fields.

Photographs seen by The Telegraph show the trail of destruction left by criminals, with the cables knocking over road signs and, in one incident, damaging a war memorial.

The thefts have also led to outages that cut off whole communities from the internet.

One cable in Brenchley, Kent, was stolen four times in a single month, while a village in Rutland was left without internet services for two months because of severe damage to the network.

Criminals targeting a copper cable in Sutton Valence in Kent also cut through a fibre cable feeding a mobile mast, leaving the village without any mobile or broadband access.

Jo Ramsay, security operations manager at Openreach, said the impact of the crimes on customers was “brutal”.

She added: “They’re the real victims of this and we just try to pick up the pieces afterwards.”

Critical national infrastructure including the emergency services network and lighthouses is also dependent on the copper cables.

While cable thefts have been happening for years, telecoms companies are battling an increase in incidents following a jump in copper prices over recent months.

Copper prices reached a record high earlier this year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine fuelled fears about the supply of key commodities. The metal is also increasingly in demand for use in electric vehicles, meaning the price is likely to remain high.

Copper currently fetches around £6,800 per tonne and Ms Ramsay said it was “not unusual” for cable thieves to make £10,000 in a single night.

In September, Essex Police charged two men following an investigation into 25 cable thefts that totalled around £1m.

Openreach also has a partnership with Crimestoppers offering rewards of up to £1,000 to members of the public who provide information about thefts.