To listen to the air traffic control frequency at Waterbury-Oxford Airport in Connecticut from the afternoon of February 10, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. But as a FedEx Express-owned ATR 42-300 turboprop was cleared for takeoff a few minutes before 4pm, the package freighter became the largest known commercial aircraft to test technologies designed to enable flying with just a single pilot at the controls.
The secretive start to flight trials with the aging turboprop are the latest steps by Sikorsky and the logistics giant to advance its development of autonomous technologies for helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, according to those familiar with the tests. The use of the package freighter as a test bed, a converted 48-seat airliner, will likely intensify both the technology development amid a steady transformation in the economics of e-commerce and a heated public debate around single-pilot operations.
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