Questions hover over viability of airborne anti-congestion strategy but drones are being tried extensively
SEOUL – South Korea will introduce flying taxis to ease ground traffic congestion in 2025, but a regulatory jungle needs to be cleared before private flying cars and delivery drones are permitted to soar over high-rise cities.
Even so, a wide range of applications are being trialed. And South Korea is well positioned to take a lead in drone adoption.
For one thing, the country has implemented tremendously successful industrial policies: physical infrastructure and metal bashing firms in the 1960s; mobile telecoms; broadband Internet and tech firms in the 1990s. For another, its citizens are enthusiastic adopters of new technologies.
Last week was “Drone Week” as the Ministry of Land Infrastructure and Transportation, or MOLIT, promoted a range of programs to highlight the potential of airborne systems.
On Wednesday, six prototype flying taxies, developed by Chinese company Ehang, were demonstrated on and over Yeouido, an island on Seoul’s Han River.
Safety was paramount. Yeouido, the site of the city’s first airfield, boasts a huge park and plaza at its center, uncluttered by high rises. And the vehicles did not accept fares. Instead, sacks of rice were used to simulate passengers.
On Friday evening, 315 drones drew images in the night sky over Seoul’s Chamshil Olympic Park. The drone swarm was designed to showcase homegrown technologies.
“We will commercialize UAM (Urban Air Mobility) by 2025,” Kim Sang-do director of aviation policy at MOLIT said on Friday. “The government, in partnership with the private sector, is building the infrastructure and an air-traffic management system.”
Flying taxis, air corridors and ‘vertiports’
A “K-drone Traffic Management System” is being developed with state financing of 25 billion won ($22 million). The basis of airborne traffic management is a three-stage, vertical zoning system that de-conflicts aircraft, flying taxies and drones.
From the skyline up to 150 meters will be the province of small drones, such as delivery and hobby UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). The airspace between 300 and 600 meters will be reserved for flying taxis. Above 600 meters will be exclusively for aircraft.
The government’s plan envisages a three-phase infrastructure build and rollout, and is predicated on future technological advances.
The first phase, set for 2025, would consist of an air taxi flight corridor beginning operations between Incheon International Airport to an as-yet-unspecified central Seoul location alongside the Han River – a distance of 48 kilometers.
Dedicated “vertiports” will be built at both locations, providing landing pads at which passengers will get on and off.
“The vertiports will be like 2-3 story buildings, with electric chargers on the top, and stores, restaurants and so on below,” Kim said. The flying taxis will be electrically powered, rather than fossil-fueled.
The second phase, anticipated in 2030, would be an increase in vertiports – probably to be added on to and around existing ground-transport hubs. “The next step will be terminal-to-terminal,” Kim said. “For example, from a subway station to another subway station.”
The third phase, which Kim expects by 2035, would be a true taxi service.
“The final version is an on-demand hailing system,” Kim said, possibly with helipads on high rises taking the place of purpose-built vertiports.
Helicopter taxis are banned in Seoul due to noise pollution, but that noise is obviated by drone technologies. However, multiple Seoul high rises already boast helicopter landed pads – albeit for emergency, not commercial use, deputy director of MOLIT’s Drone Transport Division Jang Young-ki told Asia Times.
According to Kim, the flying taxi project aims to cut road congestion in Seoul. The city has a dense population of 10 million, with 25 million in the extended conurbation, and suffers horrendous traffic jams.
Seoul already boasts highly efficient mass transit systems, a widespread, modern subway system and a bus network that operates on dedicated lanes.
Given this, it is not clear that the vehicles showcased on Wednesday will be able to meet that aim without massively scaling up.
The flying taxis, as envisaged, offer only two or five-seats. Moreover, the vehicles will not be true UAVs. One seat will be taken up by the pilot, adding to the cost.
UAVs were originally pioneered by the military. Civilian flying vehicles use drone rather than helicopter or plane technologies. Far more stringent safety regulations are essential, as they will carry passengers.
Even so, once technologies are upgraded, safety protocols are tested and proven, and the public accepts the new paradigm, Jang anticipates a three-phase transformation of the vehicles.
The first flying taxis will be piloted. The second phase will be piloted remotely and the final phase will be fully autonomous.
But as the aim is congestion reduction, current plans are only being designed for flying taxis, rather than privately owned flying cars, Jang admitted. This factor, affecting potential economies of scale, may affect the commercial viability of production for manufacturers.
True drones – that is, UAVs – offer a broad range of applications, from delivery services to public safety to entertainment. Entertainment was the name of the game in Chamshil on Friday.
In a 15-minute show, a 315-strong drone swarm performed a series of in-formation aerial maneuvers that sketched out images in the sky, including a 1988 Olympic symbol, a 2002 World Cup symbol, a 2020 Covid-19 virus and a map of the Korean peninsula.
The drones were owned and flown by specialist company UVify, which was founded in 2014 and has annual revenues of around 2 million dollars, CEO Hyon Lim told Asia Times. It not only operates the light shows, it manufactures and exports drones to 20 countries, Lim said.
Locally, UVIfy was a guinea pig in the government’s “regulatory sandbox” for drones, so has earned experience not only in “aerial ads” – messages written in night skies – but also in gaining the necessary permits for its clients. Laws enabling aerial ads were passed in 2018, enabling a drone show over the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games that year.
“We deliver messages in the sky, and spectators really focus on it. They all photograph it and post on Instagram,” Lim said. “It’s impactful, it’s unique, and it attracts eyeballs.”
Drone shows have been used over government festivals, K-pop concerts and even baseball matches. “Like fireworks, it is most effective in the evenings,” Lim said. He expects his products to replace fireworks for many events as fireworks are one-off and environmentally unfriendly.
Night skies could, feasibly, become the next corporate billboard. Lim says he is planning a major show at year-end for a corporate client.
Drones, 360 degrees
Lim’s MOLIT-sponsored Friday show required special permissions. There are stringent restrictions on drone use in Seoul not simply for the obvious risks of machines dropping out of the sky on to people or vehicles. The city lies just 50 kilometers south of North Korea.
“In Seoul, all drones are restricted for security reasons,” Park Sang-jun, a researcher at the Korea Institute of Aviation Safety Technology told Asia Times. The entire city lies in the Korean Air Defense Identification Zone.
Airborne security is a real issue. North Korean drones have penetrated the air space over central Seoul. One loitered over the presidential Blue House before crashing and being recovered by the National Intelligence Service.
Partly for this reason, and partly for the reasons of safety among high-rise densely-populated cities, the government is primarily testing drones and related regulations in rural areas, Jang said. In the countryside, drones are being used for a wide range of applications. These include public surveillance of dams, forest fires and wildlife, for example, and pesticide spraying.
While South Korea sees the US as the benchmark for the use of military drones, it looks to China for their use in the civilian space, Park said. South Korean regulators are in touch with their counterparts in the EU as new regulations are researched and developed, Jang noted.
“Right now, we are trying to build a Drone Law,” Moon Seok-jun, director of MOLIT’s Advanced Aviation Division told Asia Times. “We are at the stage of setting a foundation for the regulation,”
One of the most promising and widely awaited applications of civilian drones is aerial delivery, as pioneered by companies including Amazon, DHL and the Russian Postal Service. While much of South Korea’s drone testing has been undertaken in rural areas, trials for delivery applications are underway in urban areas.
In September, MOLIT tested an autonomous drone food delivery service in Sejong City, a purpose-built administrative hub 130 kilometers southeast of Seoul. Five drones delivered products to recipients in high-rise buildings over a range of two to three kilometers.
Next year, trials will be ramped up in urban environments. “We can call these demonstrations, but we are aiming at commercialization,” Moon said.
He anticipates drones being commercialized for logistics use in 2023.