Strange drone thefts ​baffle tech biz


A pilot flies a Phantom drone by DJI company at the 4th Intergalactic Meeting of Phantom's Pilots in an open secure area in the Bois de Boulogne, western Paris


Burglars have stolen more than $100,000 in merchandise from North America’s largest drone retailer.

In the early morning hours of Sept. 28, five hoodie-clad individuals approached a Studio City, Calif., storefront. Using power tools and blowtorches, the group quickly smashed a reinforced window and cut its way through a steel security gate on the other side.

Once inside, the team moved quickly past racks and table displays to a locked steel cage in the rear of the store. In full view of security cameras they deployed their power tools a second time, cutting through the cage and filling their arms with as much loot as they could carry. The burglars weren’t after cash or jewelry, but drones—in this case, devices worth roughly $35,000 dollars.

Within three minutes the burglars were in and out of the Drones Plus store, one of four locations burglarized over the past several months. Drones Plus—the largest drone retail chain in North America—has seen more than a dozen break-ins in the U.S. and Canada. The Studio City location has been burglarized three times in the last four months alone, with each subsequent break-in showing an increasing degree of sophistication.

“Consumers love [drones], but criminals love them too,” Drones Plus co-owner Mike Thorpe says. “They took power tools and drilled through our steel cage to get the drones. That’s just crazy to me.”

Given the spike in demand for consumer drones, the recent spate of drone-related burglaries may not be so outrageous. The FAA predicts a million drones could be sold during the upcoming holiday season, and products like DJI’s Phantom 3 have become in-demand consumer electronics. The fact that consumer drones have only recently come into their own means they are also typically sold alongside other valuable consumer electronics, like HD video cameras and tablets.

“They’re hot and they have low depreciation,” Thorpe says. “The drones that they steal range between $1,000 and $3,000, and if you just grab a bunch of them that’s like $20,000 or $30,000 worth of drones.”

The thieves in Studio City have targeted DJI brand products almost exclusively, along with other related consumer electronics like GoPro cameras. Along with burglaries in Las Vegas, Vancouver, and Santa Clara, Calif., Drones Plus has lost upwards of $100,000 since opening its first brick-and-mortar store in June of last year. The multiple incidents at the Studio City location account for between $65,000 and $70,000 of that, Thorpe says, but the location does so much business that Drones Plus can’t afford to trim the inventory it keeps on hand.

Two weeks before the third Studio City incident, the Drones Plus retail store in Santa Clara, Calif., was similarly burglarized when two thieves cut out the front window of the store and made away with around $5,000 worth of drones, tablets, and backpacks. Two alleged perpetrators in that case have since been arrested. Suspects were also arrested in Las Vegas after allegedly targeting both a Drones Plus store there as well as another drone retailer in the area. Drones Plus’s Las Vegas store has been burglarized four times, its Vancouver store twice.

While police have made no arrests in the Studio City cases, security camera footage suggests that the same group of perpetrators is responsible for all three break-ins. Drones Plus has upped its security measures with each subsequent incident; each time, the burglars have adjusted their methods, suggesting a degree of sophistication beyond the usual retail store “smash-and-grab” (as of this writing the Los Angeles Police Department has not responded to a request for comment).

While a costly headache for Drones Plus, the string of incidents suggests just how popular drones have become, Thorpe says. “If criminals want to steal them then it means we’re doing something right,” Thorpe says. “They must have a hot resale value, which means we’re definitely in the right industry. If we sold something boring, I don’t think we’d get hit by a sophisticated burglary team.”

That said, this brand of criminal flattery is getting expensive, Thorpe says.

“We’ve actually hired an armed guard for our Studio City location, which is pretty insane for a drone store,” he says. “You wouldn’t think we’d be that big of a target, but it’s fascinating what people are willing to do for drones these days.”