South Korea aims to be at the forefront of the green aviation movement with the goal of Urban Air Mobility (UAM) commercialisation in Seoul by 2025 and daily use of vertiports and drone hubs from 2030. Drone delivery remains a major and vital element of this impending revolution.

For example, in July, local startup PABLO AIR, a member of the Born2Global Centre, announced a collaboration with South Korea’s 7-Eleven, where the country’s first convenience store drone delivery station or hub was set-up in the rural resort town of Gapyeong.

This hub consists of a control tower and a helipad, which allows one-stop processing, from the taking of delivery orders to the completion of the flight. Most importantly, PABLO AIR’s drone delivery service is BVLOS, where flight is controlled with a wGCS (Web-based Ground Control System) paired with a smart mobility integrated control system (PAMNet, PABLO AIR Mobility Network).

7-Eleven Drone Delivery Station

Customers can order an item through an app created by company Allivery and have their goods sent to a local delivery hub about 1 km away from the 7-Eleven store. The drone flight takes 2.5 minutes. The products can then be picked up by the customer. The deployed drone has a maximum payload of 5 kg. For the trial, the craft flies at an average speed of 36 km/h.

Drone delivery is available from 10 am to 7 pm from Tuesday to Saturday every week. Until the end of the year, there is no minimum order amount and transportation is free of charge.

Won Hee-ryong, of the Ministry of Land Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT), commented, “We have been steadily preparing for our drone delivery services for the past two years. We have also implemented complementary technologies such as triple communication networks (RF, LTE, and SATCOM) and parachutes for optimal drone safety.”

Kim Young-Joon, CEO of PABLO AIR, added, “Seven-Eleven and PABLO AIR are the first companies in Korea to provide a complete A-to-Z service, from taking app orders to preparing products and completing deliveries.”

Kim Young-Joon

In June, the South Korean government promised to ease drone delivery regulations and establish an improved industry governance plan. To facilitate these changes, PABLO AIR said that it would gather data related from its trials and provide this to the government. The findings could act as a blueprint for the future industry.

Since July, drones are starting trials to deliver emergency medical supplies as well to more remote areas under the K-Drone System Project conducted and supported by MOLIT.

Last week, The Ministry of the Interior and Safety held a trial event in the same region of Gapyeong for drones to bring medicines straight to people’s homes just a few hours after being prescribed. Also, there are plans to transport blood and organs for transplant, first aid kits and vaccines to remote mountainous areas reducing the complicated cold chain requirements.

While there has been no cases of blood delivery to date, a MOLIT official explained the first trial will occur next month. The results will assist the Ministry to compile a guideline for the development of the drone industry, scheduled to be released in the first half of 2023.

Another potential application is “an unobstructed ambulance service” with video and communication which can instruct human bystanders in emergency situations to perform CPR, use the automated defibrillator (AED), or deploy the drone to fetch necessary medicines from nearby pharmacies until the ambulance arrives.

Meanwhile, drones can be applied to disaster relief in high-risk environments with chemical or biological hazards to enable healthcare related rescue operations.

The image demonstrates the necessary infrastructure for drone implementation in Korea including different flying heights for each category of urban air mobility (UAM), an unmanned traffic management (UTM) center, remote IDs for each UAM, an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operator and geofencing to create a no-fly zone. (Credit: KIAST)

Unfortunately, the drone industry is still highly regulated due to an already congested air space as well as major concerns like collision accidents, hacking and safety issues regarding radio wave interference. Won Hee-ryong continued, “We will push for drastic reform of the current regulations to foster a conducive environment for firms in the industry.”

South Korea aims to create a similar drone superhighway as proposed in the UK. This is an automated air corridor to reduce the work of managing all unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) while also removing the risks of individual operator collisions.

The UK 165-mile Skyway project which could cost up to USD14.2 million, will use a series of high-powered, ground-based sensors that can centrally direct all overhead traffic. Consequently, UK drone operators can forgo equipping drones with navigational sensors to maximise UAVs payload, range, and efficiency.

South Korea’s Airports Corporation (KAC) and Hancom inSpace have been selected by MOLIT to trial a similar optimised ‘drone road’ that communicates as well as resolves any physical obstacles, while identifying and then preventing any potential collisions over the city centre of Seoul. The estimated cost to successfully achieve this is around 268 million won.

Meanwhile, the South Korean Institute of Aviation Safety and Technology (KIAST) has selected different industries to participate in the K-Drone System Demonstration Support Project to enhance safety and encourage business expansion.

South Korean Red Cross Using Drone (image: Korean Red Cross)

In the medical industry, the Korean Red Cross located in the North Chungcheong Province and a nearby hospital were selected to demonstrate the feasibility of emergency medical supplies like vital antidotes and blood delivery with drones. Additionally, Pablo Airlines, will partner with Incheon International Airport Corporation to verify the demonstration of long-distance maritime emergency medicine transportation.

Asked what improvements were needed for Korea’s medical drone industry, a MOLIT official said, “Technology development, transportation system construction, safety verification and expansion of the delivery industry, are all currently being reviewed through the demonstration projects which are expected to help the industrialisation of drones in Korea.”

As a highly regulated field, commercialisation of the medical industry could pave the way for other industries to commercially use drones in South Korea. The country’s drone market is expected to double from 372.6 million won in 2020 to 602.9 million won in 2024, according to MOLIT.

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(Top image and first two: Pablo Air)