Drones are changing Canada's skies and – at the same time – changing the duties of airport operators. An airport has a general duty to take reasonable steps to ensure any aircraft around its premises are reasonably safe from known or foreseeable harms. But what counts as "known" or "foreseeable" harms?

Birds and other wild animals are known threats to aircraft in the critical phases of flight. Airports create and maintain wildlife management strategies to sustainably and reliably address the dangers caused to aircraft and birds. In addition to wildlife, drone traffic is increasing around Canadian airports. NAV CANADA receives thousands of requests annually for approvals of drone flights within controlled airspace or airspace where manned aircraft is likely to be operating. Does this mean that drone traffic may be considered to be a "known" or "foreseeable" risk that may cause harm to aircraft?

At present, drone regulations in Canada largely separate drone traffic from other air traffic and do not provide the framework to allow them to be integrated into current airspace (though industry, including NAV CANADA through its NAV Drone tool, is moving this in the right direction). Integration will be achieved as the drone industry matures and industry and government continue their cooperative efforts to support that integration through appropriate regulation.

Until then, an air accident involving a drone and an airport that ends up before the courts would likely result in a consideration of whether drones are "known" hazards to aviation safety that impact on an airport operator's duty of care.

What steps should airports be taking now to mitigate the risks posed by drone traffic?

Airports ought to specifically consider the danger caused by drones in order to ensure that they can establish and meet what is likely a now expanded standard of care in the event of an aviation incident involving a drone at or near an airport.

Airports ought to consider the following questions in assessing the risks they face:

  • Does our airport management plan take into account all hazards that are known to us, including those presented by drones?
  • What policies to do we have in place relating to drone traffic around our airport? Are we treating drone traffic as a hazard to aviation safety (similar to existing wildlife management strategies)?
  • Do we have policies in place to avoid or mitigate the likelihood of a drone incursions and to ensure we can properly respond to mitigate safety risks should an incursion occur?
  • Are we appropriately using counter-drone technology and engaging with stakeholders to protect airport users?

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