Business & Economy

South Korea tests drones as part of plan to launch air taxis by 2025

By Andrés Sánchez Braun

Seoul, Nov 11 (efe-epa).- Multiple drones designed to carry people and goods carried out their first exhibition flights on Wednesday in South Korean capital Seoul that is speeding up the testing of the pilotless aerial vehicles for logistics and security for a launch by 2025.

“Continue these prevention measures against the coronavirus: wash your hands frequently, put on a mask and cover your face and nose while coughing,” blared a voice from the speaker of a small drone that flew over the people queuing up for the demonstration next to the Han river.

It was just a small sample of what waited inside: the first flights of several unmanned air taxis and delivery drones in an urban region of South Korea.

The event, co-organized by the ministry of land, infrastructure, and transport and the Seoul metropolitan government, was to introduce the machines before the launch.

“We are going to execute the initiatives described in the K-UAM (Korea-Urban Air Mobility) road map to achieve a rapid commercialization (of these devices and services) by 2025 through the cooperation of industry, academia and research institutes,” Vice Minister for Transport Son Myung-soo said at the event.

Seoul’s acting mayor Seo Jung-hyup said the city authorities would actively work with different actors of the road map to ensure that urban air services to carry goods and passengers would be launched in the city before anywhere else in the world.

However, the K-UAM plan to establish test flights between the centers and outskirts of Korean cities between 2022-2024 is not very different from other similar projects in cities across the world, targeting the same dates, from Barcelona to Los Angeles.

The director of the transport ministry’s drone division, Jang Young-ki, was convinced that with the government’s support, South Korea could become the world leader in the sector.

One of the mainstays of the country’s pioneering ambitions in urban drone transport and air taxis is the traffic control system that the authorities have already tested successfully in less populated areas, which allows multiple units to fly simultaneously in safe conditions.

The fact that South Korea has one of the strongest 5G networks in the world backs Jang’s claim. It has also been the first country to operationalize the technology at the national level.

The government also plans to increase by ten times in 2021 the departmental budget, currently pegged at around 7.5 billion won ($6.7 million).

Jang admitted it would be easier to meet the 2025 deadline for the widespread use of drones for carrying goods than for passengers, adding that it could take time for the public to feel 100 percent sure about flying through this medium.

After several speeches, multiple drones carrying their respective cargoes flew simultaneously in the Seoul sky close to the river, displaying the apparent success of the traffic management system.

One of the main centers of attraction was the EH216 – produced by Chinese firm Ehang – a massive drone with 16 propellers and weighing over 350 kilograms.

The UAV is capable of transporting two passengers – with a maximum payload of 220 kgs – although it did not fly with people onboard on Wednesday due to the lack of a regulatory framework so far.

Vehicles such as these are designed as the future air taxis for cities that are seeking better mobility solutions in the face of the climate emergency and growing populations.

South Korean companies are currently involved in developing two of the most ambitious air-taxi prototypes, which are equipped with the electric vertical takeoff and landing (EVTOL) system, although requiring a pilot.

The prototypes of these two aircraft were on display on Wednesday at the Seoul event, including the Butterfly air taxi, being jointly developed by the local Hanwha group and the United States-based Overair.

The aircraft is expected to be ready by 2023, in line with the 2025 target announced by the South Korean government, Hanwha’s UAM head Timothy Kim said.

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