FPV drone simulators have become a fundamental aspect of the hobby. As the hobby grew, so did the quality and quantity of available FPV drone simulators. In this article, I will discuss everything you need to know about FPV drone simulators from what is available to simulator tuning.
Why Use an FPV Drone Simulator?
The main advantage of FPV drone simulators is their low entry cost. For just a few dollars you can enter the drone racing hobby. For that price, you receive unlimited virtual repairs and the basic tools required to become a seasoned professional. All pilots benefit from simulators as it is a cheap and effective method of practicing. Through simulators, I have learnt new manuevours which I can then apply in real life with high precision and confidence. This video below shows the results of GetFPV team member Jaco after spending 100 hours in the simulator and going for his first real flight.
What Simulators are Available?
Currently, there are numerous FPV drone simulators available. Listed below are my top 5, all of which I own or have used. Personally, I do not think that simulator choice is essential however I recommend sticking to one simulator and becoming accustomed to its unique flight characteristics. That said, I recommend looking over the features of each available simulator to determine which best suits your needs.
Velocidrone is currently my FPV drone simulator of choice. It was the simulator which I used to practice for the 2018 Australian Drone Nationals and led me to finish in 10th position (out of 64 pilots). The game has excellent physics with a high degree of customisability. Through physics adjustments and rate tuning, I easily tuned Velocidrone to feel like my own quad. The graphics aren’t as good as other simulators however this game is more performance based.
2. FPV Air 2
Made by a fellow Australian, FPV Air 2 takes my number two spot. For $5 (excluding optional downloadable content), the simulator ticks all the boxes with amazing physics, decent graphics and many settings to play with. It also has an ‘ultra-low’ graphics mode allowing it to run on almost any laptop or PC. This simulator in my opinion is by far the best value for money and my beginner’s recommendation.
Liftoff is perhaps the most popular or well known of the FPV drone simulators. It has amazing graphics, good physics and the ability to pick and choose components to build your own quad. If my laptop was able to run Liftoff without lag, this simulator would have taken the number one spot on my personal list.
4. The Drone Racing League (DRL) Simulator
This DRL Simulator is by far the most exciting because the top pilots in the DRL simulator tryouts win a paid contract to professionally fly FPV. Like the other games, this also has good physics and graphics. Its standout feature is its unique tracks adapted from the DRL TV show.
5. FPV Freerider & FPV Freerider Recharged
FPV Freerider was my first simulator. It has fully customisable physics and only costs $5-$10. The game doesn’t have many pre-set tracks however this allows you to improve consistency through repetition of the tracks. It does however have a random track generator, a feature which is unique to this simulator. For the low price, I went from an absolute novice to a consistent (but relatively slow) pilot within a 6-month time frame. Although I would now recommend FPV Air 2 for the price, I had to give this simulator a spot on the list for old times’ sake. Freerider also has a mobile version which is an excellent way to practice when away from home.
Most simulators can run on reasonably basic computers with minimum graphics & physics settings however a computer with a recent CPU and GPU is ideal. For the computing enthusiasts, an Intel i5 9600K CPU and a Nvidia GTX1060 GPU will quite suitably run all mentioned simulators. Newer computer hardware (such as an Intel i9 or Nvidia RTX2080) will allow the simulators to run at higher frame rates with better graphics. Higher simulator frame rates make movements feel smoother and more natural. If you want to simulate real FPV however, you can always limit the frame rate to 30 frames per second.
A controller is an obvious requirement for the simulator unless you wish to use the keyboard. I strongly recommend that you use the same controller you fly with for FPV drone simulators. This allows you to quickly adapt between real world FPV and FPV drone simulators. Controllers can connect to the simulator using either the radio’s trainer cable port, a wireless simulator dongle or through the receiver on your drone. My recommendation is to use a wireless device such as the FrSky XSR-SIM Wireless USB Dongle. You can learn how to connect your transmitter to the simulator through your drone from Oscar Liang’s here. Although I recommend using your regular FPV transmitter for simulators, I regularly use a dedicated controller pictured below (which is over a decade old) for the convenience of being able to leave it on my desk.
FPV Goggles with FPV Drone Simulators
Goggles such as the Fatshark Dominator series have an inbuilt HDMI input. When plugged into the computer with an HDMI cable, the goggles can act as a computer monitor. This allows you to fly in the simulator with your goggles (or, as I have often joked about, using them as a screen in a public place to write an essay without disturbances). Compared to a computer monitor, goggles are more realistic to fly with in FPV drone simulators as they provide a high level of immersion. Personally, I use a monitor for the convenience however I encourage you to try both and make your own decision.
Regardless of pilot skill level, simulator tuning is essential. Tuning FPV drone simulators is the multirotor equivalent of tweaking a cars’ setup within a racing game. Ideally, you want to tune your virtual simulator quad to feel exactly like your real one. For readers entering the hobby without a drone, I encourage you to experiment with tuning but to leave most settings near default. When tuning a simulator, most pilots optimise their tune to be either realistic or insanely fast. Personally, I like my simulator quad to feel realistic but with slightly more power. Below are the most common simulator settings and my tuning recommendations.
Rates are the number one priority in the simulator. Luckily, the top simulators usually allow you to directly apply your rates into them. In most cases, copied simulator rates feel like real world rates however I recommend tweaking them until they feel spot on. The feel of simulator rates can also change as you modify the physics settings so you may have to tune your rates multiple times.
PIDs are the main variables in control of stabilising a drone. Tuning simulator PIDs, like with real drones, can make the craft feel smoother or more responsive. The process to tune simulator PIDs is the same as regular PID tuning which you can learn more about here. If you are a beginner, I recommend leaving the PIDs as default.
Gravity is one of my favourite settings to change because most simulators feel quite floaty by default. I recommend experimenting with it to find your ideal gravity strength.
Air resistance changes the speed which the drone slows down or accelerates. This is one of the harder settings to tune. To tune these settings, you must be aware of how your real drone is impacted by airflow. If the simulator quad slows down in a certain direction faster then your real drone, this is an indicator that there is too much air resistance. If the simulator quad does not slow down when throttle is lowered, the air resistance should be increased.
Weight greatly effects the momentum of the craft and how responsive or sloppy it will feel. I recommend that all pilots experiment with this setting to find what is right for them. A light quad will be very sensitive to controls and tight in corners whereas a heavier quad will be smoother to control but harder to sharply turn.
The thrust setting changes the power of the quad and dictates the top speed. For a realistic tune, this is best modified to feel like your own quad. When tuning for a fast setup, I like to put this to the highest setting. For a beginner, I recommend leaving the thrust as default but gradually increasing it as the simulator quad begins to feel slow.
Air grip is a useful setting as it allows the quad to feel like it is on rails or a car skidding on ice. Simply put, the air grip is how effective your propellers are at producing thrust. I recommend tuning air grip based on how ‘grippy’ your real propellers feel in turns. High air grip results in tight turns with little drift whereas low air grip results in wide drifting turns. Freestyle pilots will usually want to lower air grip and racers the opposite.
How I Use Simulators to Practice
With my usual schedule, real world practice is something I don’t get enough of. As a result, I use simulators to make up for the practice deficiency. Prior to a race day where the track design has been provided, I will practice it in the simulator. Whilst not as realistic as the real world, the simulator is great for improving track memory and racing lines. In fact, I spent up to an hour in the simulator each day practicing the Australian Drone Nationals track. By the time the event came, I had a subconscious set of safe and fast racing lines to use. I was also able to easily navigate course elements that I previously had little to no real-world experience with (notably corkscrew gates).
Are Simulators Supplementary to Real World Practice?
My answer to that question is ‘to an extent, yes, but not entirely’. Simulators can boost your skills but there is always an extra percentage of skill progression which can only be achieved in real life. As simulation technologies progress however, simulators will become more and more supplementary. For a beginner, a simulator can be used almost entirely for practice to quickly boost up the FPV learning curve. As your skill progress however, real world practice becomes more and more fundamental to achieve peak performance.
I hope this article has been useful in providing an insight to FPV drone simulators. Simulation technology is always progressing and is an excellent tool which every drone racer should have in their arsenal. Without simulators, this hobby would be significantly harder to enter and to affordably be a part of.