SKT Readies 5G Airspace Network For Korean UAM Demonstrations

Phase 1 of South Korea’s K-UAM Grand Challenge will involve rural flights at the Goheung flight test center.
Credit: K-UAM Grand Challenge

South Korean wireless provider SK Telecom is aiming to be first to deploy a 5G airspace communications network to support urban air mobility (UAM).

Build-out of the network is getting underway to support Phase 1 of the Korean Urban Air Mobility (K-UAM) Grand Challenge.

Working with the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, SK Telecom (SKT) has completed a pilot test of the 5G airspace network near the Goheung National Flight Test Center. Using a measurement drone, SKT confirmed stable communication quality at the 300-400-m (1,000-1,300-ft.) altitude of UAM operations.

Based on the results, SKT now plans to build a 5G network this year covering some sections of the K-UAM Grand Challenge Phase 1 demonstration flight route at Goheung. The network will be provided not only to SKT’s own K-UAM team but also other consortiums participating in the Grand Challenge. Selection of the participants is scheduled for November.

Phase 1 of the Grand Challenge, which has the goal of commercializing UAM in Korea in 2025, will involve flights between August 2023 and May 2024. These will evaluate the performance, flight characteristics and controllability of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft and demonstrate integrated operations in a rural area at the Goheung test center.

Organized by the Korean Ministry for Land, Infrastructure and Transport, the operational demonstration will involve eVTOL manufacturers and operators, UAM traffic management service providers, vertiport operators and research institutes.  

Four consortiums have submitted bids to participate in the Grand Challenge. SKT is teamed with Hanwha Systems, airport operator Korea Airports and U.S. eVTOL developer Joby Aviation. Rival wireless provider KT is partnered with Hyundai, Korean Air and Incheon International Airport. 

Mobile network operator LG Uplus is teamed with Kakao Mobility, oil refiner GS Caltex, Jeju Air, drone operator Pablo Air and UK eVTOL startup Vertical Aerospace. Conglomerate Lotte Group is partnered with battery developer Mobius Energy, operator Mint Air and U.S. eVTOL startup Skyworks.

Phase 2 of the Grand Challenge, planned for June-December 2024, will demonstrate flights connecting vertiports in suburban and urban areas to prepare for commercial operations. In preparation for Phase 2, SKT has built a pilot 5G airspace network infrastructure in some sections of a metropolitan area.

The airspace network is expected to require major changes from existing ground-oriented 5G infrastructure, and SKT plans to develop technology for cell design, interference avoidance, beamforming and cell cooperation that will provide stable high-quality communications for UAM. 

“UAM communication using 5G/LTE commercial networks has not yet started in earnest in the U.S. and EU, which are the leading players in the global UAM field,” said SKT, which plans to lead demonstration “by pre-emptively building a 5G airspace network using advanced infrastructure.” 

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.