War drones soar over Ukraine, but civil use faces challenges
SEOUL — Lights flickered, young people tinkered with ball-shaped drones, and players toting remote-control devices practiced their maneuvers on the edge of netted enclosures: The tension was palpable on the sidelines of the international “drone soccer” championships in Songdo, South Korea.
Teams comprising five members try to jostle quadcopter drones — encased in circular exoskeletons for protection — through circular goalposts. Play takes place inside netted pitches.
The futuristic sport originated in Korea in 2016. A competitive league kicked off in 2022 and there are now some 1,500 youth teams and 300 adult teams nationwide. The phenomena is also going international: Fifteen nations were competing in Songdo – including a U.S. squad.
“It’s expensive — a drone costs about 130,000 won ($104) — but it builds judgment, cooperation and also concentration,” said Lee Hae-kyong, whose son, Jae-beom, 12, was competing in the festivities earlier this month.
In addition to drone soccer, drone races were also held in Songdo. The races feature illuminated, disc-shaped drones flying through an obstacle course at maximum speed, guided by operators wearing virtual-reality headsets.
Fun stuff — but with serious potential for future applications in both civilian commerce and security realms.
“If World War III breaks out, we’ll have a lot of trained operators!” noted Park Jeong-kwon, deputy director of the Advanced Aviation Division of South Korea’s Ministry of Land Infrastructure and Transportation, or MOLIT.
Mr. Park was kidding. But U.S. Drone Soccer calls the sport “gamifying aviation training.” The entity’s website notes: “Before pilots can compete, they must first learn to build, program, fly and repair” drones, leading to “exciting careers in aviation.”
Certainly, drones are newly critical weapons in both aerial- and network-centric warfare, but they have highly promising civilian applications, too.
Some of the applications were on display at last week’s Korea Drone Urban Air Mobility (UAM) Expo 2023, which also hosted the drone sports events in the convention center in Songdo, a new town set on a terraformed island off Incheon, the port/airport city serving Seoul.
Civil use of drones, formally known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) lags far behind military applications.
Russian and Ukrainian military forces have been deploying drone fleets in the skies over Ukraine for intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance and direct action at ranges near and far, and at ceilings high and low.
Turkish “Bayraktor” predator drones have weakened invading Russian armor. Long-range suicide drones have penetrated Russian air defenses to strike an airfield over 370 miles from the Ukrainian frontier.
Both sides’ kamikaze drones are destroying command posts, signals relays, radars, gun/missile batteries and vehicles. Small, civilian-standard quadcopter drones are proving to be man killers — precision-dropping “Vog” rifle grenades from treetop height into bunker openings and through the turret hatches of armored vehicles.
While UAVs run amok in Ukraine’s war-torn skies, they are dual-use technologies with promising civil applications in transport and logistics, public safety and recreation.
At Songdo, booths showed off taxi drones and delivery drones; traffic-control drones and inspection/maintenance drones; air-sea rescue drones and fire-fighting drones; light-show drones and racing drones.
There were also companies marketing components, such as motors and cameras, add-on sensors — which function like aircraft recognition beacons — and anti-drone detection and destruction gear.
An emergency response officer displayed a coast guard drone: A quadcopter with bulbous skids that can land in water to deliver flotation devices and first-aid kits. “It has already saved two lives,” he said.
Fire-control drones that drop foam on conflagrations, and drones that inspect passenger aircraft in hangars, are also already in operation in various countries around the world.
But many issues relating to the use of drones for civilian defense are complex.
North Korean drones penetrated South Korean airspace in December, hovering over South Korea’s presidential offices and prompting the country to briefly shut down civilian airline flights in and out of Seoul.
When it comes to security in the skies near and over airports, officials from both airlines and drone companies say the best option is to surround airports with a “box” of vertical electronic countermeasures, including communication jamming devices.
But there are gaps in the “box” through which airliners land and take off. The gaps are necessary, as communication jamming devices can also scramble aircraft avionics. But the gaps can be exploited by enemy, terrorist or criminal drone operators.
Future UAV eco-system?
For reasons of both security and safety, urban skies around the world remain largely drone-free.
While game-changing civil UAVs, including delivery drones and flying taxis that are cheaper, smaller and quieter than helicopters, are technically ready for civilian applications, regulators of such technology are not.
Civil servants working to create drone eco-systems over urban spaces face challenges in establishing future protocols.
Air space must be vertically de-conflicted between drones, helicopters and commercial and military aircraft. Electronic operational corridors must be established, tested and backed up before traffic zones can be created. And the safety of drones must be ensured before being licensed.
“We expect laws to be ready in 2-3 years,” said Jun Min-soo, manning the booth of AstroX, a firm that makes drone components and racing drones.
With industrial standards in the sector in flux, Korean regulators are staying in sync with international regulatory bodies, including the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
“ICAO is setting global guidelines, so we are keeping up with global trends,” said MOLIT’s Mr. Park.
Kim Dong-hyun, who directs MOLIT’s Advanced Aviation Division, anticipates a first-stage drone eco-system opening in 2025. He envisages “air corridors” for drones, likely over city waterways with the goal of limiting the damage that may be caused if a drone plummets from the sky.
The next stage could see drone air corridors vector onto existing ground transport corridors, with “vertiports” being envisaged on hub rail, subway and bus stations, enabling air-ground interconnectivity.
The end game is point-to-point flying. Under that, delivery or taxi drones would fly from any point, such as a factory or transport hub to any other point, such as an apartment balcony or building rooftop.
Korea has technological advantages in this race. It was the first country to implement a national 5G wireless network, which enables certain UAV operations. It is also a manufacturer of high technologies, and has a population of keen “early adopters.”
But the densely populated, mountainous country has spatial disadvantages that create challenges for mapping potential urban flight paths since broad, ground spaces are needed to carry out efficient system testing.
“To fly from point to point, we have to test it out over large open spaces, then apply it to city environments,” said Mr. Kim.
For these reasons, countries with larger ground spaces — China, the EU, the U.S. — may take the lead.
Even so, Mr. Kim said he hopes to see major advancements “within 10 years.”
On the convention floor in Songdo, meanwhile, Mr. Park admitted that he was hoping for Korean success in the weekend’s drone games.
In the drone soccer competition, Korea won, with China, Japan and the U.S. taking subsequent positions. Japan won the drone racing competition, followed by France, with Korea in third place.
But for a product that packages aviation, telecommunications, navigation, autonomous and robotic technologies, the real goals are bigger.
“We are in the development phase, so who wins is not important,” said Mr. Park. “We are trying to expand horizons.”