The Korea Herald


Why Korean telcos’ ride into flying car business

Telecom companies have jobs in the air -- AI, ICT infra, 6G network, critical for UAM development

By Kim Da-sol

Published : Feb. 7, 2022 - 15:32

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SKT CEO Yoo Young-sang (right) shakes hands with Joby Aviation CEO JoeBen Bevirt Joby’s manufacturing facility in Marina, California on Sunday. (SKT) SKT CEO Yoo Young-sang (right) shakes hands with Joby Aviation CEO JoeBen Bevirt Joby’s manufacturing facility in Marina, California on Sunday. (SKT)
Flying cars have clearly been the main focus of automakers seeking to expand their mobility technology into the air. But Korean telecommunication companies, despite their lack of manufacturing experience, are also jumping into the air mobility business as they have critical jobs to do. 

SK Telecom said Monday it has signed a strategic collaboration agreement with a US company Joby Aviation to materialize their cooperation in the urban air mobility business from building airframes to service platforms.

Founded in 2009, Joby Aviation is a California-based electric vertical takeoff and landing startup. It was the first company to receive the US’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) type certification for eVTOL aircraft. Just last week, the US company tested its second generation pre-production prototype, the S4, which has a maximum range of 241 kilometers and a top speed of 321 kilometers per hour.

While it seems clear what SKT can gain from Joby, the Korean telecommunications operator is expected to offer its knowhow on AI and Cloud-based ICT infrastructure such as its navigation platform TMAP mobility, and apply such technology to Joby’s air taxi service operation.

“Based on SKT’s expertise in telecommunications, autonomous driving and safety on land, its service range will expand to above the sky, going beyond limits of space through a concept of ‘Meta Connectivity,’” SKT said in a press release. 

According to SKT, it aims to lead the UAM market as a service operator for Vertiport. Vertiport is a heliport-like platform for air taxis to take off and land. As a Connected Intelligence service operator, SKT said it will leverage existing means of transportation to Vertiport with its location tracking, traffic volume information and choose the best location to set up Vertiport and run the regular route for air taxis. 

As part of its aggressive move to occupy the market early, SKT has created a UAM task force directly under its CEO office last year. 

The company is also a member of “UAM Team Korea,” a government-led consortium launched in June 2020 of private sector stakeholders like Hyundai Motor Group, Korean Air and Incheon International Airport Corporation, to push for the early stabilization of domestic UAM. 

With no clear leader standing in the UAM field, the market is expected to grow to $1.4 trillion by 2040 according to Morgan Stanley data. 

SKT’s rival KT is also a member of UAM Team Korea, and is betting its business on flying cars. 

KT, the country’s top telecommunications operator in terms of revenue, test operated its service in Unmanned aircraft system Traffic Management (UTM) in November last year by applying its service to the airport’s traffic control system. This is the same business that SKT has been developing. 

Market experts say that telecommunication firms’ focus in UAM business is mainly due to early UAM models‘ heavy dependency on 4G and 5G networks.

For safe and sound travel, the UAM vehicle must receive various information on the movement of other flying vehicles, climate conditions and location, to name a few. A system that delivers such information is based on a telecommunication network.

Last year, SKT tested communication between an UAM vehicle and a central traffic control tower on land at Gimpo International Airport. Gimpo Airport is where Korea’s first commercial air taxis are expected to run in a decade. 

But the Korean government’s goal of commercializing UAM by 2035 won’t be possible without advancing the country's current communications network, according to industry experts.

The current 5G network allows communication within 120 meters above the ground. Normally an aircraft flies at an altitutde of 10 kilometers. 

“Commercialization of UAM really depends on the establishment of a telecommunication network service to control and manage the UAM body, in terms of extending the reach of the 5G network or launch 6G service which is based on low orbit satellite communication,” said Cho Il-koo, senior researcher at the Institute for Information & Communications Technology Promotion.

According to Cho, communication should be available at 10 kilometers altitutde, but only the advancement of communication network via 6G is critical to form Internet environment akin to the service on land. 

Market research has shown that 6G network allows 50 times faster data transmission compared to 5G. Internet service via low orbit satellite communication has been studied as a method to connect Internet to regions where communication network cannot reach.

KT Sat, a satellite service company which spun off from KT in 2012, has recently declared its participation in the low orbit satellite communication development business by collaborating with foreign operators.