Drones Are Making a Safer, Smarter Urban Future in Korea

On Dec. 4, 2018, in Korea’s Gyeonggi Province, an 85cm hot water pipe burst from 2.5 m underground. Spewing a column of water and steam up to 110° C, the accident resulted in the death of one driver and severe burns to 26 bystanders. As the city rushed to help the injured and repair the pipe, 2,861 households waited without heating or hot water in the middle of a sharp winter cold snap.

Installed in 1991, the pipeline weakened due to rusty valves, causing the catastrophic rupture. While urban infrastructure prepares for such disasters, an incident of water pipes bursting above ground was rare.

A Paradigm Shift in Seongnam

Though not life-threatening, the city of Seongnam has experienced similar accidents, so it has made great efforts to prevent such disasters. Korea District Heating Corp. (KDHC) officials have been conducting routine inspections by walking along the main hot water pipeline using thermal imaging cameras. Still, there were limitations as to the extent of the investigation since it was difficult to check the pipes buried under roads, buildings, and grass. There is over 190 km of pipelines that are more than 20 years old, which takes up roughly 80% of the overall number of the city’s pipes. Moreover, it takes 22 KDHC officials and 48 hours to check a mere 20% of the whole hot water pipeline, demanding extensive time and effort to complete one round of inspection.

Luckily for the residents of Seongnam, innovation and problem-solving is at the heart of the city. The district of Pangyo, also known as Korean’s Silicon Valley, has recently introduced a drone inspection program for hot water pipelines. A drone equipped with a thermal imaging sensor flew about 120 m above the ground and carefully checked for any abnormalities with the hot water pipeline, scanning previously inaccessible areas. It is no surprise that the occurrence of pipeline ruptures has gone from 2-3 per year to none since 2019, the year these drone-based inspections began.

Success Fosters Expansion

Seongnam is one of the first local governments in Korea to recognize the positive effects of drones on administrative services. Today, 39 departments are using drones for 94 different administrative services. Collectively, these services accounted for over 30 thousand minutes of flight time in 2018, longer than any area in the country. These results drew neighboring governments to visit Seongnam and learn about their drone program, including preparation, operation, and performance. As of 2019, 52 departments throughout the city are using drones to carry out projects, recording over 55 thousand minutes of flight time.

Seongnam is further showcasing the benefits of drone use with a new initiative: creating a real-time heat map of the city. During a dangerous heat-wave, city leaders can overlap this information with other data points such as internal migration, infant and elderly populations, buildings over 30 years old, and roadside trees to make informed decisions to prevent heat exhaustion and save lives. The map also allows the detection of radiant heat from the road and urban heat island effect, informing the city’s irrigation system.

Digitally Preserving a Hometown

While drone innovation in Seongnam continues to boost the effectiveness of infrastructure inspection and public safety, it is also being used to address residents’ concerns over their hometown undergoing dramatic changes. Before the city began its urban redevelopment, it used drones to capture images of every neighborhood to virtually recreate it in a digital album, allowing longtime residents to keep the homes in which they grew up.

As the benefits of drone use across a multitude of initiatives expand, Seongnam is putting their city on a fast track to a future that is safer, smarter, and more suitable for all its inhabitants. Moreover, it’s giving the rest of Korea a roadmap to applying these innovations in every neighborhood.


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