Having arrived a bit late to the party, the South Korean government invested over $1B in 2017 to become part of the growing Asian and global drone industry. The country selected drones as one of the eight major projects for innovative growth and prepared a plan to foster drone industries from a top-down perspective, with enterprising and specific goals for competing in the drone industry. By 2025, the government expects this investment to create 164,000 new jobs and estimates that South Korea will operate more than 60,000 industrial drones within five years.
South Korea’s Drone Industry Growth and Regulatory State
With the help of various policy support from the government, such as drone demonstration projects in 2018 and the establishment of drone testbed infrastructure, South Korea’s domestic drone market grew by more than seven times, from $56M in 2016 to $398M in 2020. Drone pilot projects in the country vary from goods transportation, protection, and surveillance, facility safety diagnosis, to marine management, agricultural support, video shooting, and more.
In 2019, the government unveiled the “Act for Promoting Drone Usage” as an initiative to lay the foundation for the development of the drone industry and the national economy through the utilization of drones, encouraging investment, research, and development of viable drone commercial applications. This act also introduced three policy tools to support the drone industry: the Special Free Drone Zones where drones can be freely tested in selected city centers for delivery, security, and monitoring; financial support for drone companies to enter overseas markets; and the establishment of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management (UTM). Later that year, the country also announced a roadmap to reform drone operations regulations.
Since regulations on drones are currently very tight across many urban areas in South Korea, where both safety and privacy concerns restrict or completely ban flights, South Korea invested $8M in the construction of the country’s largest drone theme park, UV Land, in a drone regulation-free zone in the southwestern tourist town of Taean. With this two-soccer-field-sized space, developers, companies, and hobbyists can take advantage of a multi-purpose building for indoor flights, a 400-meter runway, and a 4,000-square-meter field for outdoor navigation to freely operate their drones and use the space as a research and development lab.
"We will bring drone-related companies and organizations to UV Land to create new job opportunities. We will also operate various programs to become a city specialized in drone-related industry and tourism," Taean Mayor Ka Se-ro said in late 2021.
In addition, the Korea Institute of Aviation Safety Technology (KIAST) is focusing efforts on drone research and safety through the establishment of drone flight test sites, region by region and phase by phase. These sites will be equipped with infrastructure including a runway and helipad, drone flight test operation center, and hangar for flight and ground tests to support R&D and safety certification for commercial drones.
Late last year, the South Korean government said it will relax regulations on drones and increase support for related services to improve the commercialization side of the industry faster and expand the market to around $843B by 2025. According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport (MOLIT), South Korea’s capital, Seoul, will first lift flying restrictions for drones in more places across the country, with preparations for safety standards to fly drones in cities and other crowded places to take place in the second half of 2022.
In April 2022, MOLIT selected nine local governments as the Drone Demonstration Cities and 14 drone companies to participate in a Regulatory Sandbox, an environment that lifts some of the current regulations to test and verify new products and services using new technologies to participate in the Drone Demonstration City Project. This project will perform various drone technology demonstrations that match the characteristics of each Drone Demonstration City. These include the commercialization of drone delivery between distribution centers within urban areas (Pablo Air), development of cluster drone firefighting and lifesaving systems (Cheongju University IndustryAcademic Cooperation Foundation), establishment of a domestic drone parachute standard (HexaFactory), development of an integrated device for communication neutralization for non-visible flights (SYNEREX), automated drone inspections of concrete surfaces using AI of construction sites (ViewMagine), and more.
“We hope that each local government and company participating in this Drone Demonstration Project, with safety measures placed as the top priority, play a pivotal role in the development of new technologies in the drone sector and the growth of the drone industry,” MOLIT Director-General for Aviation Policy, Kim Heon-Jeong stated.
Urban Air Mobility
In June 2020, the government’s initiatives to push the drone industry culminated in the Korean Urban Air Mobility (K-UAM) roadmap. Seeking to introduce drone taxis by 2025, the K-UAM roadmap led to the launch of UAM Team Korea, a public-private consultative partnership consisting of several Korean conglomerates, including Hyundai Motor, Hanwha Systems, Korean Air, SK Telecom, and Doosan Mobility.
Apart from commercial air taxi services in 2025, the MOLIT also wants to commence testing of automated flights in 2030 to broaden UAM alternatives to the country’s congested road system and to authorize fully autonomous air taxi operations after a series of pilotless trials in urban settings by 2035. Compared to ground transportation, it’s estimated that drones flying passengers to urban destinations could cut around 60% of travel times.
In November 2020, the first step to meet the 2025 timeline for K-UAM came down to a drone taxi flight in Yeouido, Seoul. A two-seater drone taxi capable of vertical take-off and landing carrying 80 kilograms of rice instead of a person successfully landed after a seven-minute flight at an altitude of 50 meters near the Han River. In November 2021, Volocopter completed the first-ever crewed public test flight of a fully electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) air taxi flight in Seoul.
“With MOLIT’s comprehensive K-UAM roadmap, South Korea is well-positioned to achieve the goal of commercializing UAM by 2025," Florian Reuter, CEO at Volocopter, commented. "We are extremely honored to conduct the nation’s first crewed public eVTOL test flight and prove yet again that the future of air taxis is here and now with Volocopter’s aircraft. As the pioneers of the UAM industry, we look forward to working closely with friends and partners from both the government agencies and private sectors to make UAM a reality in South Korea.”
With a focus on revising the regulatory framework for safety, the K-UAM roadmap’s first phase in 2021 saw the introduction of the K-UAM Grand Challenge (K-UAM GC) to set up UAM Safety Regulations. Hosted by the MOLIT, and organized by the Korean Aerospace Research Institute, the K-UAM GC is a phased demonstration program to support the commercialization of UAM in 2025 through UAM vehicle safety and traffic management function tests suitable for urban conditions and environments. The recruitment period for the challenge started earlier this year, and testing, evaluation, as well as a selection of participants, will take place later and throughout 2023. Also, the Korean Government released the K-UAM Concept of Operations 1.0, which will serve as a guideline for the commercialization of Korean urban air mobility and promote the plan for the K-UAM GC.
Earlier this year, MOLIT selected 13 operators, including Korea Land Information Corporation, Korea Airports Corporation, and KT, for the K-Drone System demonstration project. The K-Drone System is a drone traffic management system that supports the safe flight of multiple drones, such as drone flight monitoring and collision avoidance, and is a key infrastructure in the upcoming era of drone delivery and drone taxis. The demonstration project focuses on real-life areas where safety is critical and there is high potential for commercialization to demonstrate how essential the operation of the K-Drone System is for business expansion.
The MOLIT estimates the global market value for UAM services to reach $616B by 2040, with South Korea’s domestic UAM market reaching around $10B.
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