The innovation and development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) technology has enabled the new trend of autonomous or remote operation vehicles in many different industries beyond traditional military purposes. UAVs has fuelled innovation into greener aviation and transportation for security, communication, logistics, and agriculture as well as to the next level of research.
UAV is an umbrella term for autonomous or remote-controlled aerial vehicles such as drones and unmanned helicopters and planes.
Since UAV is the convergence system of aviation technology and IT, it is ideal for Korea. Currently considered to have the world’s top seven UAV technical competitiveness, Korea aims to rank among the top five UAV industrial countries by 2023 and among the top 3 by 2027.
With the technological innovations and advancements made in UAVs and drone technology, both the private and public sector have come to realize the enormous potential of drones. This serves as a push to broaden the potential use of drone technologies, and we see into a near future where drones will be a visible part of our everyday reality.
In South Korea, government, research institutions and private companies are taking steps to ensure that South Korea is well positioned to take advantage of the increasing commercial opportunities in this market.
It is expected that the global drone market will experience massive growth the upcoming years. According to aerospace and defence consulting company Teal group, the global UAV market size is expected to grow to US$ 12.5 B by 2023 of which US$ 880M will be for civilian use.
In South Korea, UAVs have primarily been used for military purposes - to a lesser degree - as fancy and futuristic toys for drone enthusiasts. The past few years, however, we have seen a significant expansion of drone usage into areas beyond its traditional military domain such as transportation, communication, logistics, farming, search and rescue as well as in aerial photography, monitoring and science and technology.
One potential usage of UAV, which is getting increasing attention in South Korea, is the use of UAVs for passenger transport through Urban Air Mobility (UAM). UAM is a safe, secure, and more sustainable air transportation system for passengers and cargo in urban environments. By using eco-friendly electric vertical-take off-and-landing (eVTOL) technology, UAMs can be operated for intercity transport of people and goods as well as for special missions such as air ambulance, emergency supply delivery, transport of organs or search and rescue support. With increased urbanization and traffic congestion, there is a need to develop new means of transportation that can transport passengers and cargos in a faster, more economical and environmentally friendly way. UAM can also help service people living in more remote and underserviced areas.
Another possible usage of UAVs is within smart farming. Agricultural drones and big data can contribute to improved agricultural productivity by facilitating satellite positioning systems (GNSS), agricultural robots, genomics and diagnostics. This allows farmers and producers to analyse and monitor soil conditions, and thus make informed choices on planning of cultivation, sowing, fertilisation, irrigation, harvesting etc. based on various information. While increasing productivity, it can at the same time reduce soil and groundwater contamination and reduce the overall use of irrigation.
A final usage case of UAVs to be highlighted in this tech trend, is the use of UAVs for observation and research purposes through aerial photography and transmission system on radars and/or light. Since 2018, a Danish-South Korean consortium has conducted research projects to study glaciers in Greenland utilizing satellites and drones to gain an in-depth knowledge on the Arctic environment and the dynamics of climate change. As a first milestone, the consortium has completed an expedition to the Russel Glacier at Kangerlussuaq in Greenland. The study aims to observe melting glaciers in the polar region and measure meteorological data over the glaciers to increase the predictability of climate change.
In 2019, the South Korean government presented the “Act for Promoting Drone Usage” which introduced three policy tools to support the South Korean drone industry. The three tools include 1) Special Free Drone Zones where drones freely can be tested in selected city centres in regards to delivery, security, and monitoring 2) financial support for drone companies to enter foreign markets; 3) the establishment of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management (UTM).
In 2021, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT) kicked off the K-UAM Grand Challenge program to coordinate all of South Korea’s UAM-related activities as part of its focus to enable emerging aviation markets. It is expected that more than 100 Korean companies will participate in this program.
In addition, the South Korean Government provides a regulatory sandbox programme and test bed projects to develop UAV products and services without the burden of regulatory hurdles.
In recent years, larger companies have increased the investments in drone technology because of the expanded field of drone usage. Not only LG Electronics, which started the drone motor business, but also various Korean large companies such as Doosan, Hanwha, and Korean Air are devoting resources to drone-related businesses ranging from software parts to fine products. The competitiveness of South Korea's drone industry is expected to increase substantially due to the support from large companies.
Recently, the Korean expertise in drone technology has been coupled with the Korean market for hydrogen fuel cells with a new investment by Doosan Group in developing logistics cargo drone with hydrogen fuel cell technology.
Several South Korean universities and research institutions are working on drone technologies and usage cases. Among the most influential research institutions in South Korea is Korea Aerospace Research Institute, which is collaborating with DTU Space on research on global warming and dynamics of climate change by doing glacier observation flights using small UAVs.
Other leading institutions in the domain include Korea Institute of Aviation safety technology (KIAST) and Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST).
The South Korean start-ups within UAV operate in a blue ocean future market. Apart from efforts by the South Korean government to create an environment that fosters discovery of commercial business models of drones, the Korea Institute of Start-up and Entrepreneurship Development (KISED) is about to expand its infrastructure to support commercialization of drone technologies. The institute supports the growth of the drone industry by fostering talent through the creation of drone-specific educational programmes for SMEs and start-ups. It also supports the industry with financial grants for talent recruitment programs and global branding of the industry.
In 2017, the South Korean government invested more than US$1B to accelerate the Korean drone industry and increase the global competitiveness. The South Korean government expected this investment to create 164,000 new jobs by 2025.
Please reach out to Mihong Kim at email@example.com for Urban Air Mobility, Dongah Ko at firstname.lastname@example.org for Drone and observation, and Minjun Sung at email@example.com for Agri-marine innovations. We offer our services to corporates, SMEs and academic partners looking to dive further into the area of green mobility.
 Using small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to successfully observe melting polar glaciers around Greenland due to global warming - KARI (kari.re.kr)
 The Impact of Drones in South Korea for the Enterprise (commercialuavnews.com)
 Korea’s Oldest Conglomerate Turns to Hydrogen Drones for Revival - Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)