[Venture Abroad]Korea is late to UAV game, while China has the ‘Apple of drones’

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[Venture Abroad]Korea is late to UAV game, while China has the ‘Apple of drones’

Development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, in Korea long centered around reconnaissance and military applications under the leadership of Korea Aerospace Industries, a private aerospace company.

The landscape in the domestic drone industry, however, has been rapidly changing in the past year with diversified commercial use for the devices from racing to aerial photography and videography and deliveries on smaller drones weighing 25 kilograms or less.

Large corporations such as telecom operator KT hosted a drone racing competition last December and fielded its own drone racing team. An international drone show took place at the beginning of this year in Busan and drone competitions have been sprouting like mushroom nationwide. Thousands of individuals have registered themselves as drone racers and the Gyeonggi provincial government began lectures this month on drone videography for public purposes.

“Korea is at its infancy in terms of drone introduction but the industry is growing at a rapid pace,” said the Korea Drone Industry Association in a recent report. “The majority of UAVs are still devoted to military purposes at the moment and commercial applications are mostly about aerial survey and videography. Drones weighing 12 kilograms or less with engine displacement of 50 cubic centimeters have been rising in number.”

Korea’s drone market currently stands at 100 billion won ($86 million), a mere 1.3 percent piece of the global pie, according to data from the association. Some 1,200 companies registered this year as doing business with drones - five times more than in 2015 - but the majority are small companies or start-ups engaged in drone videography, according to drone experts. Less than 30 of them are actually turning profits and their revenue is less than 1 billion won a year. Many drone makers simply put together imported parts, with no core technologies.

“Even though Korea has world-class telecom infrastructure and smartphone device penetration, the technological base in key sectors such as engines and navigation is weak,” a spokesman for the association said.

Notable developers include ByRobot, a start-up that develops and produces small racing drones such as the Petrone and Drone Fighter; Uconsystem, a long-time developer of tactical UAVs that is trying to expand into commercial delivery service; and Gryphon Dynamics, which specializes in large videography drones with arms made of light-weight carbon fiber.

In contrast with the fledgling market in Korea, China’s DJI, the “Apple of the drone industry,” has come to command 75 percent of the global drone market. Another Chinese rookie, Yuneec International, emerged as a major competitor last year. After announcing a $60 million funding round from Intel last August, the Shanghai-based company showcased at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show its Typhoon H drone for aerial photography and videography, which can automatically avoid collisions. That product is not yet commercially available.

“Drone technology has reached a level of maturity that has permitted DJI to garner $1 billion in revenue in 2015, doubling their revenue in one year,” said market researcher RnR Market Research in a March report. “This achievement puts the drone systems at the forefront of aerospace manufacturing.”

The report cited video, photos, specialized video, targeted video, and package delivery systems as examples of uses of drones and forecast the world market for drones will grow five-fold to $36.9 billion by 2022.

Venture capitalists poured nearly a billion dollars into new drone companies last year and Silicon Valley giants Facebook and Google are testing drones to provide reliable wireless internet access in remote locations. Facebook built a gigantic solar-powered drone, Aquila, which will stay in the stratosphere for months, beaming broadband Internet to hard-to-reach areas.

BY SEO JI-EUN [seo.jieun@joongang.co.kr]
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