Drone taxis and bags of rice take flight in downtown Seoul

The EH216 drone taxi made by Chinese firm Ehang flying during a test in Yeouido, Seoul, on Nov 11, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Ehang staff preparing a two-passenger multicopter aircraft for an unmanned display flight, in Yeouido, Seoul, on Nov 11, 2020. PHOTO: AFP
A visitor sitting in a Hexa all-electric VTOL aircraft, at an event showcasing a drone traffic management system, in Yeouido, Seoul, on Nov 11, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - A drone taxi and a drone delivery were tested in South Korea's capital on Wednesday (Nov 11) as the country moves closer to launching unmanned air vehicles by 2025.

The event, near Seoul's Han River, offered a glimpse into the future and what flying vehicles might look like in a densely populated city. South Korea is investing around 24.5 billion won (S$30 million) through 2022 to develop the so-called K-Drone System.

The demonstration in a quiet riverside park started with the flight of several small drones, which are designed to monitor traffic conditions and alert for any potential danger.

A siren rang to signal the all-clear before a larger, two-seater drone, made by Chinese company Ehang, began its take-off.

No human passengers were on board the 5.6m wide drone due to safety regulations. Instead, it carried 70kg of rice bags in its seats. The vehicle glided above the river for around 10 minutes at a height of about 36m and reaching speeds of up to 50kmh.

When the Ehang 216 passenger-grade auto aerial vehicle's electric battery is fully charged, it can fly for as long as 30 minutes, according to Mr Bill Choi, Ehang's Asia business head. The company's drones are already in use in China, for deliveries, firefighting and some tourism purposes, he said.

Flying taxis and other autonomous vehicles in the skies may sound like science fiction at the moment, but they are predicted to be big business one day. McKinsey & Co estimates that the potential market size for drones could touch US$46 billion (S$62 billion) in the United States alone by 2026. In Japan, it could reach around US$20 billion by 2025, according to a forecast by drone start-up Skyrobot.

South Korea estimates that its own local market for aerial vehicles will be about 13 trillion won by 2040.

Wednesday's event was part of a series of ongoing tests of unmanned drone taxis and drone deliveries aimed at easing urban traffic congestion in South Korea.

Initially, the flying cars will be controlled by a human on-board pilot and will look more like small helicopters, said deputy director Seo Jeong Seok of the newly created department overseeing drones in South Korea's Transport Ministry.

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