This isn’t a plot in a Grand Theft Auto or Payday video game. Chinese drone thieves were stealing some 10,000 smartphones a day.

In a move out of a 90s heist movie, a Chinese gang fused the newest tech and the oldest tricks to undertake a lucrative crime.

Shenzen, China is considered a major tech hub and is often compared to Silicon Valley in the U.S. Naturally, it is home to many a technological item such as cellphones. So, it also follows that someone would try to relocate some of that merchandise by illicit means.

Referred to in various outlets only as the “crime ring”, the group attempted to smuggle $80-million USD in property over the border into Hong Kong. But they didn’t need a big drill like in Ocean’s Thirteen. All they needed were drones and a pulley system.

How did this group integrate low tech with high tech to (almost) pull off this feat?

image of the drones used in the smuggling attempt for article Gang Uses Pulley and Drones in Smartphone Smuggling Attempt
The drones used in the smuggling attempt | Chinadailyhk.com

How Pulleys Enabled a Movie-Quality Crime

Before they got busted in Shenzen and Hong Kong, the group managed to transport thousands of undeclared iPhones across the border. The process employed really feels like something out of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Accomplices rented rooms on the 25th floor of a residential building in the Luohu district of Shenzen. Using drones, they flew wires to a corresponding drop point in Hong Kong.

That drop point happened to be situated on the roof of a home in the special administrative region. The accomplices there then weaved the wires into a pulley system. Next, they secured a bag onto the wires on the Hong Kong side.

The Shenzen team used an electric winch to pull in the wires and retrieve the bags. 

Shenzen Customs spokesperson Chen Liang said that the crime was so well planned that the neighbors noticed nothing. In fact, the team was likely smuggling 10,000 – 15,000 smartphones per day.

Unfortunately for the crime ring, Shenzen Customs officials raided the rented rooms in February 2018. The cross-border smuggling attempt ended in failure, but the story remains intriguing.

Read More: The Latest Update on Drone Technology and Regulation

What does this mean for drone technology in China and at-large?

image of Chinese customs official confiscating drones for article Criminals Use Pulley and Drones in Smartphone Smuggling Attempt
Reuters

A History of Regulation; A Future Ban?

China is the top maker of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the world. However, China also has a history of increasingly tight drone rules and regulations.

So much so that you have to take a test for a license and pay around $1,534 USD for an officially recognized qualification. You even have to register your drone using your real name which may give some pause.

But this heist paired quiet drone tech with a pulley system for added stealth. You might be able to regulate drones, but can you really regulate a pulley?

After the news of this bungled heist broke, Reuters reported on how Shenzen customs would move forward. The implementation of technical equipment, high-res monitors, and closer scrutiny would prevent future incidents.

Could this latest drone incident send China into talks of banning civilian drone use?

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