Drone Show Korea 2022, an annual event sponsored by South Korean government bodies including the Ministry of National Defence, was held at the Busan Exhibition & Convention Centre (BEXCO) between February 24-26.
It featured 137 companies and 533 booths, making this year’s incarnation the largest in the show’s six year history. This year’s event also featured the participation of a large international contingent of prominent speakers and industry representatives hailing from Japan and several Western European countries.
A key highlight of this year’s event was military technology, centred around the unveiling of new indigenous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). This included the hyped ‘next generation corps level reconnaissance UAV’, a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) surveillance and reconnaissance UAV developed by Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI). While little official information on this craft’s capabilities can be found on KAI’s website, sources in Korea have speculated that the new model could have an operational range of 400km and a flight time of 18 hours. If true, the latter is almost four times that of the model it is intended to replace, South Korea’s first homegrown UAV, the RQ-101 Songgolmae.
Extending flight times to bring the capabilities of Korea’s indigenous UAVs closer to those of leading American and Israeli models has been a major area of concern for South Korea’s military. Mid last year South Korea’s Defence Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) signed a contract to purchase “low noise hydrogen fuel cell drones”, which it expected to be delivered by November that year. Hydrogen cells have far better lasting power than lithium-ion batteries, with one study putting the ratio at 26-1.
This year’s show featured a long endurance, liquid hydrogen drone produced by the eco-fuel company SK E&S. This recently broke the operational record for small drones (almost 13.5 hours, which surpassed the previous record by over an hour). The event also showcased two hydrogen-powered, heavy lifting military/dual-use cargo UAVs. One item was a model of local missile maker LIG Nex1’s Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) capable KCD-200, which made its first appearance as a concept presentation in last October’s Seoul International Aerospace & Defence Exhibition (ADEX). Korean Air also teased a hybrid-fuelled dual-use transportation drone with a predicted payload of 250 kilograms.
This year’s inclusion of cargo/logistics drones reflects Drone Show Korea’s reputation as a platform for showcasing UAVs with new operational roles and capabilities that extend beyond South Korea’s conventional focus on battalion and corps level surveillance and reconnaissance roles. New capabilities put on display in recent events include stealth UAVs, ship launched drones, rifle armed machines, suicide or kamikaze drones, loitering munitions (through cooperation with Israeli producers), manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) UAV systems, and unit level miniature UAVs similar to the United State’s Wasp Unmanned Aerial System.
The movement to diversify South Korea’s military’s UAV arsenal first picked up pace in 2015, after a spate of incursions by North Korean drones into South Korea’s airspace. It received another boost when DAPA introduced and trialed the “rapid acquisition process” in order to hasten the adoption of newly emerging technologies and respond to evolving security threats – coinciding with purported breakthroughs in North Korea’s miniature UAV, UAV reconnaissance and offensive capabilities. The rapid acquisition project came on the back of a December 2018 report on “testing and evaluation regimes for Advanced Weapon Systems in the Fourth Industrial Revolution” produced by the Security Management Institute (SMI), a think tank with close ties to the ROK’s armed forces.
In late 2021 DAPA renewed its emphasis on sourcing an array of UAVs from local developers so as to expand the nation’s capacity to develop UAV technologies autonomously, and reduce Korean firms’ reliance on Israeli and American partners.
These developments reflect South Korea’s attempt to improve resilience and revolutionise its approach to warfare, as outlined in the National Ministry of Defence’s Defence Reform 2014-2030 report. Nonetheless, the local industry faces a number of key constraints that could impede its aspirations of gaining a strong foothold in a global market expected to rise in value to almost US$60 billion by 2025.
A report by the Korean Innovation Foundation indicated that while government programs have been successful in seeding the development of a relatively autonomous indigenous UAV industry, only a modest number of firms – KAI, Korean Air, UconSystem, NES&TEC, Huins Inc and Dusiteg – currently have the capacity to independently develop all the main parts of UAW systems including navigation control software. While China’s enormous drone industry places constraints on the availability of hardware, the report ranks South Korea’s industry’s level of software development as “basic” compared to advanced countries, especially in the areas of information processing, video analysis software and 3D modelling/mapping.
In an overall assessment, the Korean Innovation Foundation’s report gives South Korea’s UAV industry a score of 85% against the benchmark 100% of the United States – placing it roughly on par with Russia, but behind Israel (94), England, France, Germany (90), and East Asia’s leading drone powerhouse, China (88).