South Korea is shifting preparations for passenger drone transport into higher gear with plans to launch air taxi service by 2026, and autonomous urban air mobility (UAM) operations within the following decade.
South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MLIT) said it hopes to orchestrate the rollout of commercial air taxi services by the end of 2025, and will commence testing of automated flights in 2030 as it pushes to broaden UAM alternatives to the country’s congested road system. After a series of pilotless trials in urban settings, the MLIT hopes to authorize fully autonomous air taxi operation by 2035.
Like several developed countries around the globe, South Korea has realized the rapid speed with which UAM craft for services like air taxis is advancing may produce vehicles ready for operation before governments have done the advance work to allow that. As a result, Seoul is joining other global capitals in laying down time markers to ensure certification processes and full regulations framing flight are in place by the time manufacturers introduce their aircraft for sale.
As part of that, the MLIT will oversee construction of the country’s first vertiports, initially focusing on main transportation hubs. One of the first runs is expected to link Seoul to the Gimpo and Incheon airports outside the capital. Officials are also planning to establish flight corridors for air taxis and other UAM planes with an altitude range from 300 to 600 feet.
Next month, the ministry will be holding a repeat of test flights it made last November in Seoul. One of those featured an EHang 216 electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle making a seven-minute journey transporting sacks of rice rather than humans. This time, trial flights will be made from Gimpo airport and downtown Seoul, and Incheon airport and the capital.
Upping the tempo in preparing for air taxis and other UAM services also responds to a major congestion problem plaguing the roads of certain South Korean cities. It’s estimated, for example, that drones flying passengers to urban destinations will cut around 60% of travel times compared to ground transportation.
Korea Aerospace Research Institute, Hanwha Systems, Korea Aerospace Industries, and Hyundai Motor’s UAM division have been working to developing craft and infrastructure for air taxi services. The MLIT estimates global market value for UAM services to reach $616 billion by 2040, with South Korea’s share of that pegged at about $1 billion.