At an event held next to the Han River near Yeouido, a finance and banking district in the heart of Seoul, a two-seat drone produced by Chinese manufacturer EHang buzzed quietly overhead for about seven minutes at an altitude of over 150 feet.
The eVTOL — electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing Vehicle — which carries a payload of 485 pounds and can reach speeds up to 80 mph, was loaded with heavy sacks of rice instead of passengers for the flight.
The demonstration was hosted by the Seoul city government and South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, which is developing a “K-drone” air- traffic management system as it plans for a sky that will soon be filled with everything from taxis to delivery drones.
“We are very happy to introduce drone taxi, the future transportation system, in Seoul for the first time in Korea,” said Seo Jeong-hyup, acting mayor of Seoul. “The city government will do its best to ensure that the human dream of flying in the sky is safely settled as a reality for Seoul citizens and to support the future industry of Korea.”
The event also featured demonstrations of several smaller unmanned package-delivery drones.
MOLIT Vice Minister Son Myung-soo said in a statement the government has created a comprehensive urban air mobility roadmap “to achieve commercialization by 2025 without any disruptions through collaboration with industry, academia and research institutes.”
According to Son, aerial drones will slash travel times on trips within the Seoul urban area by up to 70%. A journey from Yeouido to Incheon International Airport will take less than 20 minutes, as opposed to over an hour by car.
MOLIT projects that a drone taxi fare for the 30-mile trip would be nearly $100, more than twice the cost of a taxi ride. However, as the market grows and autonomous flight systems are increasingly adopted, the fare could drop to less than $20, the ministry said.
Drones will play a key role in fighting traffic congestion in dense urban areas and are environmentally friendly, said Seo Jeong-seok, deputy director of the drone transport division at MOLIT, a department that was created last year.
“Urban air mobility will be good for decarbonizing the economy,” he said. “South Korea is aiming for a complete decarbonization of its transport systems by 2040-2050.”
Flying vehicles are also expected to be a big business globally in the coming decades: Last year, Morgan Stanley projected that the global market for autonomous urban aircraft could reach $1.5 trillion by 2040.
South Korea’s MOLIT projects the country’s own market to be worth $11.6 billion by 2040, with the industry creating 160,000 jobs.
South Korea is lagging behind drone aircraft developers in Europe and the United States, however. Uber is planning to launch its aerial ride-sharing service, UberAir, in Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia, in 2023.
But Korean manufacturers are quickly crowding into the market. On Wednesday, Hyundai Motors and Hanwha Systems showed off scale models of their own eVTOL drone aircraft under development.
Hanwha is aiming for a 2023 prototype release and a 2025 commercial rollout for its five-seat drone, called Butterfly. Hyundai also showed off a five-seat vehicle, which it is developing in a partnership in Uber and is targeting for mass production in 2028 along with other flying cars.
In the meantime, Seo said that one of the key challenges for the industry will simply be getting future passengers comfortable with the idea of soaring over congested cities in flying drones.
“All drone makers around the globe need to work together to gain high social acceptance for the vehicles,” he said.