By Choi Soo-hyang
SEOUL, July 4 (Yonhap) -- Early on a Saturday morning, Kim Dong-gun, 44, hurriedly packed up his equipment and headed to the newly opened drone park in eastern Seoul.
The drone enthusiast who has been going to the suburbs to fly his unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was one of the first to sign up online to check out the first drone-friendly park in the capital city.
"It was almost impossible to fly drones within the crowded city area," the businessman told Yonhap News Agency. "If you go to Namyangju, east of Seoul, on weekends, you will be surprised by the number of drone hobbyists who came from the capital to avoid getting in trouble for breaking aviation laws."
Under the local law, drones are banned from many places in the country, especially from the northern parts of Seoul, where key government offices are clustered. Areas around military installations and nuclear power plants are also no-fly zones.
Flying drones, which many people all over the world enjoy, has recently established itself as a popular hobby here with the government's push to deregulate the industry.
Earlier in May, South Korea said it will lift a series of regulations covering drones as part of the country's broader deregulatory campaign aimed at boosting economic growth.
The government said it will expand drone zones, loosen up rules to produce more drone pilots and create a one-stop agency to handle permits for flying drones.
In line with the efforts, the Seoul city government opened its first drone park along the Han River that flows through the capital late last month.
In the 27,000-square-meter park, citizens can freely fly their unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are below 12 kilograms in weight up to an altitude of 150 meters, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government.
Those willing to use the park just need to make a reservation, either online or offline, on a first-come, first-served basis.
The wide field was used by drone pilots in the past as well, but they had to get approval from the Korea Aero Models Association, which more often gave it to groups than individuals.
Three other parks where flying drones is permitted in the metropolitan area still require users to get approval first from the association. Many drone owners, however, show up at the parks and fly their aircraft without getting permission.
On the opening day of the long-awaited park, about a hundred drone enthusiasts visited with their families and friends, despite windy weather.
Members of the local community Racing Drone Korea enjoyed the leisure sport together.
"It is not just about flying drones," Kim said. "From assembling parts to taking aerial images and racing, there are many different things that can be done with the model aircraft."
Kim, who is an amateur video producer in his spare time, started using unmanned aircraft to better film cars that he test drives and introduces online with members of a community he belongs to.
"At first, my goal was to record better videos of cars, but now I am just fascinated by the beautiful scenery that drones can capture," Kim said.
He is planning to open a separate YouTube channel introducing the video clips made by the community's members, who come from different walks of life, from salaried workers to college students.
The local branch of China's drone manufacturer DJI said South Korea is an important market with strong growth potential fueled by a growing community of photographers and content creators.
In March, the Chinese firm, which claims 70 percent of the world drone market, opened its first overseas store in South Korea.
DJI's choice of Seoul for its first overseas outreach was seen as an attempt to reinforce its lead in the drone "ecosystem" by tying up with partners in the IT-heavy South Korea to produce content that it can take to the global market.
More than 2,000 people visited the flagship store on opening day, with some camping outside the store the night before, according to the Chinese company.
It said the average number of weekend visitors at the store, located in Hongdae, one of the most popular nightlife spots for young South Koreans, hovers at around 2,000.
"We see this as a reflection of Koreans' growing interest in the UAV market," said Monica Suk, marketing and communications manager at DJI Korea.
"We've learned that customer interests span across different demographics in Korea, from teenagers to retirees and from recreational users to those seeking to start their own business using our aerial technology," she added.
Though flying drones is generally perceived as an expensive hobby, many think it is no different from other pastimes.
"Just like other activities, it is about how much you want to and you can invest in it," Kim said. "I have friends who are satisfied flying drones that cost just 20,000 won, but of course for me, it costs more as my interest is to produce better images."
He gathered about a million won with club members to buy the Phantom 3 he currently uses for filming aerial shots.
Despite worries about privacy and security, nearby residents also welcome the new park.
"As long as (the hobbyists) fly their drones within the designated area, I don't see any problems," said Heo Jong-cheol, a businessman who lives next to the park. "I am rather glad that I can have a new hobby with my six-year-old son when he grows up a little more."
The park is located about 1 kilometer away from apartment complexes.
"We will make sure the hobbyists fly their devices in the direction of the river, not toward citizens in nearby pools or playgrounds," city official Kim Gun-tae said.
Those violating safety rules when using the park can be fined up to 2 million won under the country's aviation act, he added.
Industry watchers generally agree the move is a meaningful step forward for not only drone enthusiasts but also for the industry, adding that is all the more reason why having proper safety measures is crucial.
Oh Seung-hwan, a professor at Kyungsung University in Busan, said providing better infrastructure for children and citizens to play with drones will allow the hobby to spread.
"If Seoul's new park is a success, many other cities will follow," said Son Hung-sun, a professor at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST). "Seoul should start off in the right direction to set an example for other cities."