FPV Drone Simulators - The Ultimate Guide
The goal of this guide is to give you an honest review of all the options out there. Now I must preface this by stating that I am partial to Velocidrone, but I will do my best to be critical of the sim where warranted. There is a reason I am partial to Velocidrone and it is because I think it is the best sim out there. I chose Velocidrone, they did not choose me. With that said, I have a lot of experience with the DRL and DCL sims. I’ve qualified for the DRL tryouts every year and made it to the top 16 in Las Vegas last year at the Drone Nationals DRL Tryouts. There are a lot of options out there now and the latest in-depth review I could find was from 2018. Most of these simulators have had big updates since then, so it’s only fair that we take another look at all of them!
In doing this review, I discovered a couple of new sims that I’ve never heard of before. Some have quite amazing back stories! Some of the sims that I have not played in a while have the same look and feel that I remember, which drove me to Velocidrone. It’s surprising to see these sims that haven’t made any major improvements over the years.
A good FPV simulator can be an invaluable tool for any pilot, beginner to pro, if used properly. If not used properly, it can be a very frustrating experience that will leave a bad taste in your mouth, swearing to never use a sim again. I’ve encountered many pilots like this who brush off the idea of FPV racing simulators being a useful practice tool. My initial reaction is that they must have had a bad experience with their first sim and never looked back.
If we look at professional F1 drivers, they are constantly on the sim memorizing tracks and testing equipment. This same practice can translate to drone racing a couple of ways.
FPV gear can get very expensive the more you crash. Try new tricks and practice race lines on the sim before you go out to the field.
It’s hard to get out to the track every day to practice. For F1 drivers, it costs a lot of money just to get a car on a race track with the team and all the support that it requires. For drone racers, it’s not as drastic, but some parallels can be drawn.
F1 drivers use simulators to analyze and memorize specific tracks. This is all possible with drone racing now that many of the top sims have great track editors built in. We are now seeing serious pilots travel to the big races with laptops equipped with their favorite sim. In between heats you will see them grinding the track memorizing the lines, so that when their heat comes up they have developed the muscle memory required to go full send.
Top 5 Reasons Why You Should Sim
Let’s be real…Drone Racing is a very expensive hobby to get into. You’re looking at a startup cost of around $1,000 just to get in the air. For the total noob pilot, a simulator can give you a taste of racing for a fraction of the price. Who knows, maybe you just don’t enjoy FPV. It would be a waste to buy all the gear only to find this out. To get started with simulators, all you need is a computer and a controller.
Make lots of friends
This is perhaps my favorite part about simulators. Most of the offerings have great communities of pilots. We are all FPV addicts and the community is sort of like a drug addiction support group. You will make some of your closest friends from FPV racing, I promise!
Learn how to handle race pressure
A lot of sim pilots will tell you that this is the most helpful aspect of simulators. Competing in online events and race sessions will teach you how to manage your race nerves, so that when the real race comes you will know how to prepare and how to handle the pressure in the moment. A lot of pro racers will tell you that the pressure they feel in the sim is greater than IRL events. I think this is because in sim events you have to fly 100% perfect at full speed or someone will pass you. IRL you have a little wiggle room for an error or two.
Develop muscle memory
There is such a vast library of race tracks in all these sims that you can literally fly every imaginable FPV maneuver that you would ever encounter IRL. Mastering Split-s, power loops, slaloms, etc is easy in the simulator. You can set up practice tracks and just hammer out specific moves, or just put in the hours and race a variety of tracks.
This is not only beneficial to racers. Imagine being able to practice the same freestyle movement 100’s of times without any penalty! I learned how to Matty-flip in the sim and when I went out to try it IRL I was shocked at how natural it felt just by practicing in over and over again in the sim.
Learn tracks quicker
As mentioned above, there are so many diverse race courses on many of these simulators. Velocidrone boasts the largest library of user created tracks with over 4,000! You can race a new track every day and learn how to develop the skills needed to master tracks quickly. This way, when you show up to a real event and are limited to practice time, you can feel confident that you will be able to unlock the secrets of the track quicker than your competitors.
Have a decent gaming laptop? Now you can travel to events and practice the track in between race heats! At WDC 2019, I built the track for a bunch of pilots and they had it running in the pits an hour after I saw footage of the track. When you’re at a big event with limited flight time, you really want to maximize each qualifying opportunity and not waste heats learning the track. Use the sim to get the muscle memory so you can work on faster lines in the air.
Top 3 Reasons Pilots Will Tell You Not To Sim
You won’t be able to fly IRL after practicing on the Sim
Some of the simulators in this review will, in my opinion, hurt your IRL skills if you are an experienced pilot. This is due to the fact that they simply do not have good flight physics. If you are a complete beginner, though, I think you can get value from any of the sims on this list. That said, there are a couple of sims on the list that provide ongoing benefits, no matter your skill level.
Feels too floaty (We will discuss what causes this feeling)
This is by far the most common complaint I hear from pilots. They tend to attribute this feeling to the Gravity of the sim. The fact is that Gravity is a constant in any simulator and is easy to code into the sims. The feeling of “bad gravity” is a result of poor graphics and bad frame rates. If you are running a 60hz monitor, these sims will have that floaty feeling. Switch to a 144hz monitor and I promise that the sim will instantly feel better.
Develops bad habits
I can see how some pilots have this feeling towards sim practice. In simulators, there is no penalty for crashing, unless of course you are competing in an online event. One could say that you will begin to fly riskier IRL after spending time on the sim, because you have no fear of crashing. Here’s my thoughts on this sentiment - If you aren’t crashing IRL, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. Imagine a weight lifter who never gets sore. Will they get stronger? Probably not. Crashing, to me, is the weight lifting equivalent of sore muscles.
Performance - This, in my opinion, is the most heavily weighted criteria of the bunch. If the sim does not perform well in terms of flight physics then if really serves no purpose except learning stick controls for a complete beginner. Having a drone fly as close to real life as possible is the whole purpose of a “simulator”. Remember, these are sims first and games second. If you are looking at these sims as “games” then it would be a different scoring system all together.
UI/UX - Is the sim pretty/easy to navigate? Some are better than others, that is for sure. They all fulfill the basic needs of a user interface, but some just simply have more bells and whistles. Some of the options below, as you will see, have very polished menu systems.
Graphics - How does the sim look on your screen? Is there some sense of realism while flying around a forrest or through a multigp race gate? How does the sky look? The grass? Some sims have chosen to “beautify” there environments ignoring the performance impact that this has as a result. For me, I’ll take performance over looks any day of the week. Remember these are tools first, games second.
Community - What’s the racing scene like for each given sim? Are there online events, facebook groups for support and sharing and active members online? Having a good community is critical for staying motivated and competitive.
Multiplayer - Flying alone is great if you’re just getting started, but you will eventually want to take the leap into multiplayer racing in order to make leaps in your skill level. Seeing how you stack up against other pilots will help guide you on areas to improve as well as motivate you to make these improvements. For this metric, I logged into each sim on the hour for 12 hours to see how active the multiplayer lobbies are.
Support - Does the sim have documentation and setup guides? How responsive is their support team? For this metric, I reached out to support with some very basic questions.
Here are the specs for my PC that I run my drone racing live streams with with links to where I purchased the items. I did a lot of research on what the best setup was, so save yourself some time and follow the amazon links to purchase.
liquid cooled cpu and gpu
Just like with real drone racing, the equipment you fly with will have a quite significant impact on your flight experience. To keep this simple, I will give you the top 3 most important factors that will give you the biggest return on investment for sim flying.
Monitor - This will act as your “fpv goggles”. If you can’t see where you’re going you can’t fly.
Radio - The “controller”. Become one with this tool.
Graphics Card - The “drone”. This will be the most important driving factor for the sim’s performance. CPU, Memory and RAM are also important, but I want to keep this simple and not turn it into a PC build guide.
Monitor - “The Goggles”
I can’t tell you how many times pilots have come to me after having recommended a new monitor and they are just blown away at the difference it makes. If you’re playing on a laptop, you are most likely not running a 144hz screen, unless you have a high end gaming laptop. When refresh rate increases from 60Hz to 144Hz, the gap between frames significantly shortens, so that in the same time interval, more frames will be displayed. If you want to be competitive you need a 144hz monitor!
Which monitor should you buy?
A 144hz monitor will be plenty good enough for any of the sims in this review. I run an Asus gaming monitor with 144hz refresh that is 27”. Most gamers will tell you that a 240hz monitor is not worth the investment unless you have a very serious gaming rig. The jump from 60hz to 144hz is huge, whereas the jump to 240hz from 144hz is quite small.
Radio - “The Controller”
The great thing about FPV simulators is that you can use the same controller for the sims as you would use IRL. This will be the biggest investment for beginners who already have a good PC. If you end up not liking drone racing, you can always sell the controller and make back some of the loss from the investment. If possible, go to a local FPV meetup and check out different controllers that pilots use. You may find that a smaller radio feels better in your hands than the traditional options.
Here are the best options for simulators…
NO DIRECT CONNECTION TO PC WITHOUT LAG.
Pro - GREAT GIMBALS THAT WILL LAST A LONG TIME
Con - TOO MUCH LATENCY TO BE USED WITH PC
Graphics Card - “The Drone”
This is the going to be the workhorse of any simulator you choose to go with. When I first started playing on sims like DRL and Velocidrone, I was running a 1080 from Nvidia. I was having to lower the graphics for the DRL Sim in order to get a decent frame rate, whereas with Velocidrone and Liftoff I could run max settings and get great FPS.
I am now running an RTX 2080 that is liquid cooled. This allows me to live stream events, while running Velocidrone at max settings.
I’ve surveyed the Velocidrone community to see what graphics cards are the most popular among sim pilots. Here are the results from that survey…
Nvidia vs AMD
There are tons of videos on Youtube about this dilemma. It’s up to you to choose what type of PC mother board, CPU and GPU combo you want to run.
what’s a good price point?
From what I’ve gathered from the survey, of the top 10 GPU’s you’re looking at a base price of $400. This will allow you to run 1080p at medium quality or better, depending on the sim. The AMD Radeon 64 runs $400, while the Nvidia 970 can be found used for $450. You can also find used option on Newegg.com for much cheaper.