The Korea Times

Settings

ⓕ font-size

  • -2
  • -1
  • 0
  • +1
  • +2

Competition heats up in urban air mobility market

  • Facebook share button
  • Twitter share button
  • Kakao share button
  • Mail share button
  • Link share button
A drone taxi flies over Seoul during a test flight event in this November 2020 file photo. Courtesy of Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport
A drone taxi flies over Seoul during a test flight event in this November 2020 file photo. Courtesy of Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport

Companies plan to increase investments in drone taxis under new government

By Park Jae-hyuk

Korea has emerged as a battlefield among domestic and foreign companies that seek to gain supremacy in the urban air mobility (UAM) market, since the government unveiled its roadmap in 2020 to commercialize drone taxis by 2025 at the earliest to ease traffic congestion on Seoul's roads.

As the newly launched Yoon Suk-yeol administration also selected UAM as one of the key industries for the future, companies in various fields have accelerated their efforts to offer urban air travel services that can cut travel time in downtown Seoul by two-thirds.

The latest example was a consortium led by LG Uplus.

The telecommunication company said on May 11 that it joined hands with Kakao Mobility, GS Caltex, Jeju Air, Pablo Air and Vertical Aerospace to participate in the government's K-UAM Grand Challenge project.

"The K-UAM Grand Challenge is a phased demonstration program in which UAM vehicle safety and traffic management function testing suitable for urban conditions and environments are integrated and operated to support the commercialization of UAM in 2025," the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said in its announcement.

LG Uplus plans to jointly develop a transport management system with Pablo Air specializing in drone-related services, collaborating with LG Science Park to take advantage of LG Group's competence in battery and motor technologies. Vertical Aerospace, a British aerospace manufacturer, decided to produce electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft for the consortium.

Kakao Mobility will use data collected by its Kakao T mobile app, while GS Caltex will build vertiports, which refer to airports for VTOL aircraft, at its gas stations. Jeju Air, the country's only low-cost carrier that has entered the UAM market, will take charge of overall flight control.

"We will verify that we can provide high-quality telecommunication services in the air, not just on the ground," LG Uplus Chief Technology Officer Lee Sang-yeob said in a press release. "We will do our best to become the business leader providing stable UAM services."

Representatives from GS Caltex, Jeju Air, Kakao Mobility, LG Uplus, Pablo Air and Vertical Aerospace hold each other's hands, during a signing ceremony for the K-UAM Grand Challenge consortium at LG Science Park in Seoul, May 10. Courtesy of GS Caltex
Representatives from GS Caltex, Jeju Air, Kakao Mobility, LG Uplus, Pablo Air and Vertical Aerospace hold each other's hands, during a signing ceremony for the K-UAM Grand Challenge consortium at LG Science Park in Seoul, May 10. Courtesy of GS Caltex

On the day of the consortium's announcement, Volocopter also said in its press conference in Seoul that it set up its Korean subsidiary with the aim of providing air taxi services in Seoul starting 2024. Although the German UAM company expressed its intention to cooperate with Kakao and other Korean firms, its latest decision has been expected to intensify competition in the local market.

Korea's other two major telecommunication companies ― SK Telecom and KT ― have already engaged in a heated competition for dominance in the UAM market, viewing advanced air traffic communication network services as a new growth engine for them.

In January 2021, SK Telecom organized a consortium with Hanwha Systems and the state-run Korea Airports Corp., and signed a partnership earlier this year with Joby Aviation, a Silicon Valley-based eVTOL aircraft manufacturer.

SK Telecom CEO Ryu Young-sang, who has supervised the company's UAM taskforce, said last month that his company has made every necessary effort to develop a UAM system optimized for Korea.

"In collaboration with our partners, we will do our best to speed up its commercialization," he said.

KT formed a consortium last November with Hyundai Motor, Korean Air, Incheon International Airport Corp. and Hyundai E&C to cash in on Hyundai Motor Group's abilities in manufacturing and construction, as well as on Korean Air's know-how in developing unmanned aircraft.

In 2019, Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Chung Euisun declared that the UAM business will account for 30 percent of the group's portfolio in the future. During his meeting with reporters in New York last month, Chung said that UAM vehicles can be commercialized soon, given that there will be fewer unexpected accidents in the air.

Supernal, the automotive group's UAM unit in the U.S., also announced April 26 that it built a vertiport named Air-one in Britain's Coventry, with the aim of establishing more than 200 vertiports in major cities in Korea, the U.S., Germany and Australia and introducing its first eVTOL by 2028.

Long way to go

Critics, however, pointed out that Korea's UAM industry still lags behind those of other developed countries, calling for eased regulations for domestic companies to profit from the rapidly growing market.

According to Morgan Stanley, the size of the global UAM market is expected to grow to $322 billion by 2030 and $1.47 trillion by 2040, from $7 billion in 2020.

"Companies having competencies in batteries and ICT need to seek opportunities from the global UAM market," said Yoo Hwan-ik, head of the Federation of Korean Industries' (FKI) corporate policy division. "The government should ease regulations on flights in the capital area and data sharing, in order to boost the UAM industry."

The FKI said that Hyundai Motor, Korean Air, Korea Aerospace Industries and Korea Aerospace Research Institute are the only four Korean companies that are developing UAM vehicles. According to the business lobby group, the U.S. has 130 UAM vehicle developers, while the U.K, and Germany have 25 and 19 of such companies, respectively.

There is also concern about the relocation of the presidential office to Yongsan causing a potential flight ban in air space near the Han River, hampering the transport ministry's UAM project.

"We are considering looking for an alternative route or allowing flights in certain sections," a transport ministry official said.


Park Jae-hyuk pjh@koreatimes.co.kr


Top 10 Stories

go top LETTER