With so many drones available on the market right now, investing hundreds or even thousands of dollars in a drone that you can’t fly is a risky investment. Not only could you crash your very expensive drone on the first try, but you could also realize that its flying controls simply don’t work for you.
This is why drone flight simulators have seen a major uptick in popularity recently. They provide a fun way to learn how to fly a drone as well as see whether you like the flight and controls of a particular drone brand. A flight simulator can also be a great investment if you’re looking to upgrade to a more expensive drone but want to see how it flies first since there usually isn’t a return policy on these kinds of things.
So we’ve put together this handy guide on drone flight simulators so you can find the one that works best for your needs.
What is a Drone Flight Simulator and How Does it Work?
A flight simulator is exactly what it sounds like: a software program that simulates real flight controls. The same goes for one that focuses specifically on drones. For the best experience, you should use a real drone controller to replicate the real thing.
Drone simulators typically cater to one of two needs: using the simulator to learn how to fly / to practice flying specific drone models, and learning how to fly racing drones for competitions (or just for fun). The latter is usually linked to first-person view (FPV) drones. Some drone simulators also support multiple types of drones and environments/scenarios, allowing you to customize your flight and practice for different types of flight missions as well.
While drone flight simulators are typically more useful to commercial drone operators and racing enthusiasts, recreational drone operators can still get a lot of use out of them. Of course, they can be used by practically anyone just for fun – although flying the real thing will always be a much more rewarding experience.
How to Choose the Best Drone Flight Simulator For You
There are plenty of options to choose from, and while we’ll aim to list the best of the best here, choosing the right drone flight simulator is going to be up to your specific wants and needs. So here are a few key components you need to look at before choosing a drone flight simulator.
1. Find a Simulator That Works on Your Devices
Drone flight simulators typically work with both Windows and Mac PCs. Some support additional devices like tablets and iPads, but it’s not all that common. You should look at the specs of the simulator and its hardware requirements before you make the purchase to ensure it will work on your device. Most drone flight simulators aren’t excessively demanding when it comes to PC specs, but if you don’t meet the minimum requirements you might experience glitches and other errors. Or the program might not even work at all – and you likely won’t get a refund.
2. Controller Compatibility
As mentioned above, many drone flight simulators work with actual drone controllers, but they can also support an array of alternative controllers. This includes gaming controllers like Xbox controllers and PC controllers. Many drone flight controllers also support the regular keyboard and mouse setup.
If you want to use a controller with the flight simulator, make sure that your device supports the controller as well. For instance, if you want to use an Xbox controller then make sure it can connect to your PC. Also, if you’re using a real drone controller, make sure that the flight simulator supports that specific drone model/controller.
3. Consider the Price
Drone simulators can vary wildly in terms of cost, and this is usually directly linked to the number of features (especially commercial ones) that they offer. There are some free options, a few of which we’ll mention here, but there are also cheaper simulators ranging between $5 and $50. Although they can go as expensive as $200 with all of the bells and whistles.
If you’re just interested in trying out drone flying, you don’t need to buy an expensive simulator with a bunch of features you’re probably never going to use. Although, if you want to learn to fly with a specific drone model, then you might need to spend a bit more to get the right software.
For commercial drone operations, it’s best to spend the extra bucks to get exactly what you need. For example, if you need to test out or practice a specific surveyor operation, then you’ll need to find a drone flight simulator that can simulate that situation.
4. Drone Models / Flight Scenarios
As mentioned above, you’ll need to make sure that the simulator you end up buying matches your needs. Many of the more high-end drone simulators offer a variety of different scenarios, drone models, and exercises that can be customized – to a degree, of course.
When selecting a drone flight simulator, you’ll need to take all of these elements into account. If you’re shopping for a new drone then the scenarios and exercises might not be as important, but you’ll definitely want to select a program using the specific drone you’re looking to buy. On the other hand, if you want to practice specific maneuvers then you’ll need to find a more specialized simulator. Most drone flight simulators only offer open-world environments that let you freely fly around, but having one that offers at least a few different types of practice scenarios is even better.
The Best Drone Flight Simulators You Can Buy Right Now
1. DJI Flight Simulator
Of course, the most well-known manufacturer on the market is going to have its own drone flight simulator. If you own or are looking to buy a DJI drone then this is definitely your best bet for learning how to fly or practicing different flight maneuvers.
DJI created this fantastic simulator with what it calls a “comprehensive physics engine” to simulate what real flight feels like. It’s a great option for both commercial and recreational flyers as it is simple enough to learn but offers powerful features. Some noteworthy features include different flight modes, different daytime and weather conditions, and various flight scenarios that allow for commercial applications like powerline inspections as well.
The software is compatible with practically every DJI drone on the market and supports flight controller input, which you can connect to your PC with a USB cable. It also supports game controllers, including Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PlayStation as well as both PC and Mac.
If you have a DJI account, you can access a trial account of the flight simulator for free, but it only lets you fly around using the different models. Otherwise, you’ll need to sign up for one of the paid options to access additional features, which includes an Enterprise version and an Energy version.
2. droneSimPro Drone Flight Simulator
Like the DJI drone flight simulator, droneSimPro has an impressive custom flight engine that replicates real-world physics. It also works with DJI drones (namely the Phantom 2 and 3 models) but comes in at a more affordable price tag as well at US$30 at the time of writing.
It’s also a great option for commercial flyers as it provides a wide variety of training scenarios. Although recreational flyers should be able to get just as much use out of it with free-flying in an open environment as well as obstacle courses that provide an excellent platform on which to practice those finer motor skills. For all of the modes and scenarios it offers, you can choose between first-person view (FPV) and drone view, with a realistic HUD that simulates real-life telemetric data. All of the scenarios and terrains in the simulator feature realistic terrain and lighting conditions as well.
droneSimPro supports both PC and Mac as well as major gaming controllers including the Xbox 360 and Xbox One controllers as well as the PlayStation 3 controller.
As one of the older/more established drone flight simulators on the market, Phoenix R/C Pro brings a well-known brand name to the table that has a reputation for being trustworthy and user-friendly. As the name implies, this flight simulator provides simulations for all sorts of remote control aircraft but does include drones as well.
It doesn’t come with as many drone-specific scenarios and modes that some of the other simulators mentioned here do, but it is very easy to learn. Phoenix R/C Pro does provide a great way to learn how to fly with a real controller as well as a wide variety of drones and other remote control aircraft options as well as customizable weather and daylight options.
This simulator comes with a pretty hefty price tag at about US$130, but it does include a Spektrum DX6i flight controller along with the purchase. That might make it a great option for drone owners who are looking for a more advanced controller to bind their drone keys to. The simulator supports PC and has plenty of tutorial videos to help you get started.
4. Zephyr Drone Flight Simulator
Both professional drone flyers and drone flying schools/training institutions will find the Zephyr drone simulator immensely helpful. It was created specifically with training in mind and even comes with an online classroom for virtual lessons and training evaluation. The software is constantly being updated by a highly supportive development team.
It also comes with some robust classroom management tools that, among other things, lets educators track their student’s progress on the simulator. This includes relevant data like seeing how many times a person crashes as well as their overall progress over time. For professionals in the US, the many advanced scenario training options should be especially useful since it’s all FAA rule compliant.
While the simulator doesn’t offer as wide of a range of models as Phoenix R/C for instance, it does offer a more updated range of recent drone brands, including DJI, Parrot, Syma, and Autel. Zephyr drone simulator works on PC and Mac and supports a wide range of hobby flight controllers as well as both Xbox and PlayStation controllers. Although the dev team has indicated a willingness to incorporate more controller support upon request. Zephyr offers both enterprise and professional licenses as well as a new free version.
5. RealFlight RF9.5 Drone Simulator
If you’re looking for an incredibly versatile flight simulator then RealFlight RF9.5 is right up your alley. This extremely polished simulator offers access to over 170 remote aircraft models, including helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and a variety of drone models. Although something to keep in mind is that these are more generic types of drones rather than specific brand models.
Along with that, the flight simulator offers almost 40 different flight scenarios that cover obstacle courses, indoor flight, and a variety of weather condition options. It also includes a wide range of deep customization options, giving you full control over your flight conditions and training/practice. This includes being able to change wind speed and direction, changing the temperature and weather, and both adding and removing obstacles to any courses. The simulator even provides an online mode that lets flyers compete with each other across various obstacle courses for a bit of extra practice or just for fun.
RealFlight claims “true to life” physics and provides a site editor to create custom maps and import additional aircraft. It’s also compatible with virtual reality (VR), including popular headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. This means you can also simulate FPV flying via VR before trying out the real thing.
With all that variety and robust features, the app naturally comes in at an equally impressive price tag, currently going for almost US$99 for the software only, and a more expensive US$179 option that includes a controller. While Realflight promotes a couple of specific controllers for use with its software, it does support a whole list of other controllers including almost any 4-axis game controller.
6. Drone Simulator 2017 – Hotprops
If you’re looking for a drone flight simulator that works on mobile then Hotprops Simulator is a great option. Given that it’s a mobile app, the experience is naturally quite a bit less complex than what you’d get with any of the other items on this list.
But given that the app is free, it serves as a good entry into the drone flying simulation experience. This has made it a particularly popular option among newbie flyers looking to practice before trying the real thing as well as people who are interested in drone flying.
Hotprops works with a mobile device’s touch-screen controls, although you can tether a game controller or drone remote transmitter for more tactile controls if you like. It also allows for some customization via slider controls, which adjust the sensitivity of the controls including the pitch and roll of the drone. Hotprops is free to download for Android phones via the Google Play Store and features some optional in-app purchases.
7. Quadcopter FX Simulator
Like Hotprops, Quadcopter FX Simulator caters to the mobile market by providing an inexpensive entry into drone flying. At just $4.99 (with a limited free version as well), this app offers both Android and iOS users a chance to try drone flying before trying the real thing. It might not provide the most varied or deeply accurate experience – like some of the more expensive mentions on this list – but it does provide a strong dive into the world of drone flying.
The simulator offers a number of powerful features, including different camera modes, HUD, course lock and home lock, position hold, dynamic wind, and an altitude hold switch. Many of these features are available on some of the high-end drones currently on the market, giving you a chance to try them out beforehand. In addition to all of that, the app also provides some advanced settings including sensitivity controls. The app also recently added support for FPV flying with Google Cardboard VR support.
Not everyone’s looking for a serious drone flight simulator with all the bells and whistles. Sometimes you just want something fun to fly around with while sort of getting a good feel for how drone flying works – and that’s exactly what Liftoff provides. Sold as more of a gamified experience, this program is a drone racing sim that offers a variety of quadcopter choices, beautiful maps, and exciting racing courses. It also supports FPV goggles and a wide range of game controllers.
While it might not hold as much value to FPV drone racing veterans, it can still be a fun experience for people who love the hobby. Newbies will find the most value in Liftoff, as it provides an entertaining introduction into the world of quadcopter racing with plenty of customizations and environments to keep you entertained.
The game is available on Steam as well as for consoles, making it a great option if you don’t own a PC. Although it does get access to the Steam Workshop, so those who do own it on PC get access to the Steam Workshop as well along with a host of custom drone models and other mods.
9. DRL SIM Drone Racing Simulator
The Drone Racing League (DRL) offers one of the best drone racing simulators you’ll find on the market right now. The DRL Simulator was built using meticulous research methods that saw DRL conducting thousands of bench tests using various drones and drone components. The result is an ultra-realistic sim that provides probably as close to a real-life drone racing experience as you’re going to get.
Not only does DRL Simulator give you the ability to fully customize your drone to whatever specs you want, it also provides a long list of additional features and environments. The unique maps are beautifully crafted – although you might not have much time to enjoy the scenery as you zip through the DRL courses that mimic real-life DRL tracks.
Since it’s available on Steam, DRL Simulator supports a variety of game controllers and offers a fantastic multiplayer mode that lets you race across the obstacle courses with friends. It also provides an interactive 54-mission tutorial that helps you on the go by providing real-time feedback to help improve your flying skills; making it a fantastic choice for people looking to get into drone racing.
Despite its many great features, DRL Sim isn’t a good option for anyone who’s just starting out with drone flying and still wants to learn the basics. This is a high-velocity training sim that caters to racing, and racing only. It’s currently available on Steam for US$10.
10. VelociDrone Simulator
If DRL isn’t really your style, then the other massively popular option is Velocidrone Simulator, which also offers both multiplayer and single-player drone flying experiences. While DRL is beginner-friendly and encourages new players to try it out – even just for fun – Velocidrone is for serious professionals. There’s no hand-holding here and you should already be at least a little familiar with drone racing if you want to get any use out of this sim.
The simulator comes packed with a bunch of fast-paced racing tracks but also lets you create your own customized tracks through a course editor. You can even share your custom tracks with other flyers. The environments and graphics aren’t as pretty as DRL, but the toned-down features mean it will run on most PCs and doesn’t require high specs.
Along with the online multiplayer and track editing, Velocidrone also offers line-of-sight flying, a time attack mode that lets you compete against yourself, and animated gates that move for an additional challenge.
This sim is compatible with most drone transmitters and gaming controllers, and it’s definitely a much better experience with a real controller than the mouse and keyboard. VelociDrone currently goes for US$17, with additional combat and micro quad flying modes available for an additional few bucks.