Drone piloting and RC flying in general is fantastic, fun hobby.
Unfortunately it’s something you can only do if the circumstances are just right.
You need time, preparation and a suitable space to get your kicks or some practice. It’s not like you can quickly squeeze in five minutes of flight on the bus or between meetings.
Thankfully the RC community has a long history of using software simulators to sharpen their skills on rainy days or before taking that expensive new model out for the first time.
Thanks to the mainstream popularity of drones there are now plenty of mobile games that aren’t necessarily very realistic, but just plain fun.
So today, instead of highlighting real drones, I’m going to look at some of the great software that’s available today. From super-serious sims to more lighthearted fare you’re sure to find something that will alleviate the boredom.
Best Drone Flight Simulators
RC Flight simulators are software applications that mainly have the goal of replicating the real experience of flying. The idea is that you can gain transferable skills that will make you a better pilot in real life.
It’s a safe place to learn the basics such as orientation, takeoff, landing and so on. It’s also a good place to hone your skills to an advanced level.
Competitive 3D helicopter pilots spend hundreds of hours in RC flight sims before attempting their maneuvers in real life. Of course, camera drone pilots can practice getting better shots or saving the drone from hairy situations.
Once you’ve mastered the art the sim can keep you in practice during downtime as well.
So which drone sims are worth your time? Let’s have a look.
RealFlight Drone Edition (PC Windows)
RealFlight is one of the big names in RC simulation. Plane and chopper pilots have sworn by it for years, but the company has definitely felt the winds of change with the rise of drones. Which is why they have released a standalone drone edition of their simulation engine.
The price may seem a little steep, but you have to remember that this bundle version includes a Futaba Interlink Elite training controller. While you can use a gamepad or keyboard and mouse to operate the sim, it’s not exactly helpful. By using a realistic controller with all the same buttons and knobs you’d use in real life, you get a truly edifying experience.
The only reason not to buy the bundle is if you already own a compatible controller from a different edition of the software.
This software includes fifteen different from models. These include standard aerial photography drones, racing drones, hexacopters and eight-rotor monsters. The program simulates up to eight channels of control with a dedicated flight physics engine. There are 20 different environments and structured flight challenges in addition to the expected free flight.
Not only can you practice safely with a drone model close to one you actually own, but you can fly with models you might never have the chance to in real life.
Phoenix RC 5.5 (PC Windows)
An even bigger name than RealFLight in RC flight sims is Phoenix RC. At least, this is the one that I have personally used on an off over the years. It’s prettier in general and feels more “solid” if that makes any sense.
The main downside here is that as far as I can tell Phoenix does not offer a dedicated drone edition of its software. So of course this is a little more expensive than the RealFlight, because you’re getting all the craft, not just drones.
It lacks some of the drone specific features and challenges of the RealFlight Drone Simulator, but if you have the extra 50-60 bucks this is a sim I’d recommend to anybody.
This is an especially fun package if you’ve never tried your hand at other types of RC craft such as helicopters or planes before.
Real Drone Simulator
First of all, you have to understand the Real Drone Simulator is NOT a finished product. This is a passion product that has just gone into “pre-alpha”, which means the software is going to be buggy and unstable. That doesn’t mean that you should ignore this simulator however. In fact, the developers need our help to keep the dream alive. They are using community donations to fund development and keep the sim free to use.
In addition, it’s possible to connect a real transmitter to the software with a little guidance and patience.
The makers are planning to approach all the big drone makers when the software reaches its Beta phase and hopefully many of them will be willing to licence their drones to the game.
There are many planned modes for the future. These include racing, aerial film and photography and other stuff they aren’t talking about yet.
Even the pre-alpha looks great. Both the graphics and physics engines look solid at this stage and there’s little doubt that if they can keep paying the bills we’ll have a solid drone sim that’s built from the ground up for that purpose.
LiftOff Drone Simulator (PC Windows)
This is a simulator that I haven’t personally had the chance to try out yet, but everywhere I go people mention it. It’s one of the most positively-reviewed FPV drone racing sims on Steam, which has been notoriously harsh on other games in this niche.
It’s still an Early Access game with limited content and some technical issues with controller compatibility that still needs to be resolved. At its core though, it’s a great, realistic sim with incredibly impressive graphics.
It’s also pretty cheap, so you might as well grab it now in case they raise the price when the game officially launches.
Realflight Mobile (iOS & Android)
Hey look, it’s a Realflight simulator again, but this time for iOS and Android. This lighter version of the software looks pretty darn good. I tested it both on my iPad Pro 9.7 and Galaxy S6 It ran butter-smooth and the controls are intuitive.
You can download the app for free and it comes with two craft that don’t require payment. Unfortunately these are both RC planes. All of the drone models cost money to unlock. It’s suggest buying the bundle unlock, since for the cost of four individual drone unlocks you can unlock everything.
The game defaults to Mode 2 controls, but you can change to other modes under the settings.
Obviously using touchscreen controls doesn’t feel anything like using actual sticks, but at least the developers have made things easier by not requiring your fingers to be on the actual sticks. Instead each half of the screen represents a stick and you can give inputs anywhere in each half.
You can tone the realism and assists up and down depending on your level of skill and resetting after a crash is instant. All in all, Realflight Mobile is a great little sim for not much money. PhoenixRC has nothing like it in the mobile space.
Drones are cool and learning how to fly them better in a simulator is a great idea, but sometimes you may want to take your drone-related less seriously. So here a few fun drone-related games that you can use to blow off some steam.
RV-7 My Drone (Nintendo 3DS)
RV-7 My Drone is one of those el-cheapo games in the Nintendo 3DS eShop you might just scroll past without a second glance. It turns out however that this little shooter featuring a plucky little quadcopter is a fun way to kill time if you have a 3DS.
It uses a combination of physical controls and the 3DS touch screen to help you navigate and attack on-screen enemies.
Created by a small developer called “EnjoyUP”, RV-7 has a lot of replay value, given that it makes use of procedural generation to always offer a new mix of scenarios and enemies.
It’s not all shooting either. You also get to do missions where you transport supplies, put out fires, construct bridges or have to do escort and defence duties.
Sure it could have been anything other than a drone and everything else would have been basically the same, but it’s cool to see a little quadcopter float around the world pretending it’s an attack chopper.
Drone Fight (Nintendo 3DS)
This is another game for the ultra-popular Nintendo 3DS console. Drone Fight is basically a racing game where you have to get to the end of the course first. You can play against AI opponents only, which is a pity because this is a game begging for a multiplayer mode.
It’s either a straight-up race against your opponents or a time attack mode where you compete against yourself.
The game looks OK for a 3DS game, but the visual style and design is really bright and funky. The fictional drones look pretty cool and interesting too. Originally this game only came out in Japan, but now it’s available in the EU and US eShops for just a few dollars. If you have a 3DS and want to burn some time nailing down a course, this isn’t half bad.
Drone Shadow Strike (iOS & Android)
This is a drone game of a different stripe. If you think that military drones are cool and would like to try your hand at blowing up some virtual enemies, then this free-to-play military drone game might be up your alley.
Drone Shadow Strike is available for Android and iOS and let’s you fly eight different UCAVs. You get to use missiles, rockets, cannons and bombs. These can even include nuclear bombs, so you know that the developers were never interested in realism.
There’s a lot to do here, with a rank-based leveling system, almost 300 challenges and 70 achievements total.
The graphics are pretty decent and ran smoothly on my S6. You don’t actually pilot the drone, but fire weapons from the airborne platform. So basically it’s more of a rail shooter than a flying game. Still it’s very well-produced and a lot of fun. The main downside is its free-to-play nature. You can either earn currency slowly in game or pay real cash for faster progression.
How much the game ends up costing your is a function of your patience towards this sort of thing.
Fun & Games
If you aren’t much of a gamer or haven’t ever really bothered with drone simulators you may think programs like these are pointless, but to me it’s at the very least a sign that drones are far more mainstream than other RC hobbies ever were.
Even if you don’t like the pure games, there’s a lot to be said for having a good simulator in your arsenal. The only way to be a better pilot is to rack up flight hours. The laws of physics and nature limits how much of that you can do in real life. So why not get a little digital assistance or just have a little fun?
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