A Korean-made drone accomplished a feat of flying in the stratosphere after outclassing those of Google and Facebook. But the absence of a budget may make the drone’s big achievement a “one- The Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning had supported a project of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) to develop high-altitude solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) by giving the KARI R&D expenses among others since 2010. But the project came to an end as of the end of last year.
“The government supported the KARI with labor costs and operating costs so that the KARI could continue its research but now we have no plan for further support,” a government official said. “The Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning is planning to push ahead with drone support projects via the Mid-Term UAV Development Plan. The plan does not envisage high-altitude solar-powered drones.”
Accordingly, some are voicing concerns that this project will be suspended for at least two or three years or in a worse scenario, it will vanish under the next administration. Even though the government intends to hatch a follow-up project, it should be pushed forward with as a feasibility study project and it will take at least two years to propose and start the follow-up project.
On the other side, global rival organizations and companies are planning to preoccupy the market by making massive investment in the next two to three years. It is said that the British Ministry of Defense began to invest 10.6 million pounds to make a purchase of the British-made high-altitude solar-powered Zephyr series. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) helped Boeing develop its solar-powered drone “Solar Eagle” by shelling out US$90 million.
It was reported that the US launched a solar-powered drone project in the 1970s and the public and private sectors have invested trillions of won in the project for about 40 years. But the Korean government began solar-powered drone development in 2010 and since then, has invested six billion to eight billion won. According to the Teal Group, an aviation research firm, the long-endurance solar powered drone market has been rapidly growing as the market was estimated at US$1.5 billion.
“Korean-made solar-powered drones have risen to the level of those of developed countries, technology for high-capacity batteries and light materials is needed to enable them to assist low earth orbit satellites,” said a representative of the industry. “Ten years ago, the government came up with lithium sulfur battery development projects. But most of them were scratched off as they failed to produce results in the short term.”
“The Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning, the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Resources and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport among others claim that they are promoting the drone industry,” said another representative. “Korea is at the level of buying overseas parts and programs and assembling them into drones and commercializing the drones rather than securing fundamental and original technology.”
“Added value is created out of batteries, light materials and solutions. But each ministries do not care about it,” he added.