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If a plane is flying VFR (see and avoid) below 400 ft, and the pilot collides with a drone due to not seeing the drone until it's too late to take evasive action, then would the pilot be at-fault for insurance purposes? Would the drone operator (or the pilot) have violated any federal regulations for not keeping clear of the other craft?

Conditions:-

  • Class E or G airspace
  • out of the 5nm radius of an airport
  • sparsely populated area
  • operator of drone is not within 500 ft of where the collision occurred (i.e. for the purposes of FAR 91.119 (c)).
  • I have a smaller piston engine plane in mind, but I'm assuming that the outcome would be the same for faster jet aircraft too
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    $\begingroup$ What is the airplane pilot doing flying below 400 ft. more than five miles from an airport?? $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Oct 21 '15 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Lnafziger: I suppose "crop dusting" could be a possibility. $\endgroup$ – Greg Hewgill Oct 21 '15 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Lnafziger -- cropdusting, pipeline/wireline patrol, landing out $\endgroup$ – UnrecognizedFallingObject Oct 21 '15 at 22:13
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    $\begingroup$ Common reasons are crop dusting, fire-fighting (i.e. application of fire retardant), and utility patrol. Recreational GA planes might go low for sight-seeing reasons, although preparation (surveying for obstacles and emergency landing sites) and extra awareness would be necessary. $\endgroup$ – CJBS Oct 21 '15 at 23:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexus It's not illegal over water or over "sparsely populated areas." Perhaps unwise unless you have a really good reason (like crop dusting,) but not necessarily illegal. $\endgroup$ – reirab Oct 22 '15 at 14:58
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The FAA has some rules pending about this, you can read them here but for drones under 55 LBS one of the proposed rules is,

Must yield right-of-way to other aircraft, manned or unmanned.

and since you bring up class E it should be noted that

Operations in Class B, C, D and E airspace are allowed with the required ATC permission.

if/when this goes through it looks like its the drone operators fault since the plane had the right of way

According to the FAA's website in relation to model aircraft they state that,

(4) the aircraft is operated in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft;

this is pretty much a blanket statement that maned aircraft have the right of way but the FAA handles most things on a case by cases basis so in the end of the day it could go either way.

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Drone strike with plane below 400 feet - who's at fault?

According to this article (FAA to Drone Operators: Keep Off Airports, Stay Below 400 Feet) it appears that the pilot of the plane is guilty for the collision. If the drone operator respected the FAA rules (line of sight, below 400 ft and max. allowed weight, far from the airports) he can not be declared guilty for the accident.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Michael Huerta says the agency already has regulations in place to ensure safety in the skies. Huerta says the agency already has rules that prohibit operators of personal drones from flying into airports and soaring over 400 feet in the air., Source

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks -- I'm looking for references to FARs and/or other codified rules. $\endgroup$ – CJBS Oct 21 '15 at 23:45
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    $\begingroup$ Your comment that the drone operator "cannot be declared guilty" is highly doubtful; it's well established for manned aircraft that even if you operate in compliance with all FAA regulations, you can still be cited for "careless operation" under 14 CFR 91.13, i.e. legal is not the same as safe, and operating unsafely is illegal. What happens if you decide to use your drone to film a crop duster in operation at 50ft and you get in his way? Still not your fault? Until the FAA gets around to publishing their drone rules, any situation like this is unclear. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Oct 22 '15 at 13:50
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    $\begingroup$ Just because you're operating in airspace where you have the right to be doesn't mean that you "can't be declared guilty" for a mid-air collision. The airplane has the right to be there, too. The drone is much more maneuverable and the drone operator is much more able to see (and hear) the approaching aircraft than the other way around. If the drone operator is complying with regulations that he be within visual line-of-sight of his, then he will be able to see and hear the aircraft and failure to get out of its way would definitely be negligent (and probably grossly negligent.) $\endgroup$ – reirab Oct 22 '15 at 14:57
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    $\begingroup$ Nothing in the article you link supports your claim that the pilot of a plane is always guilty. The article only says that it's prohibited to fly drones higher than 400ft and out of line of sight. That says nothing whatsoever about who is responsible for collisions between drones and planes below 400ft. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Oct 22 '15 at 19:29

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