There are drone simulators out there designed for drone racing. Then there are simulators designed for consumer drones. But what about drone simulators designed to improve pilot skills for professional applications?
Enter Zephyr Drone Simulator, a drone pilot training simulator developed by the team at Little Arms Studios, a Virginia-based software company specializing specifically in drone simulation software. And while the software is used in high schools, its user base extends to serious, professional applications in higher education, public safety, business and workforce development, and even the United States Air Force.
What sets the Zephyr drone flight simulator apart?
While there are tons of drone simulator options out there, Zephyr has arguably the best, most realistic flight models you’ll find in a simulator, with each drone having its own unique and accurate physics.
There are both FPV and VLOS flying modes, with additional options to set your own controller/transmitter inputs to your desired configuration and calibration.
There’s also a huge variety of content consisting of an ever-expanding drone roster that certainly includes drones intended for recreational and racing use. Those include popular camera drones including:
But perhaps more relevant to serious drone pilots seeking to improve their flying skills (likely in anticipation of landing enterprise gigs) are the professional drone models available on the simulator — many of which you won’t necessarily find on other simulators. Among the current enterprise-grade drones supported by Zephyr are:
- Autel Evo II
- DJI Inspire 1 and 2
- DJI Matrice M200
- Freefly Alta X
See the full list of supported drones on the Zephyr simulator here (and for what it’s worth, Little Arms says they’re always seeking to add more drones).
There’s also a wide variety of modules and fields represented, meaning users can build skills — which in turn could very likely help aspiring drone pilots find employment — as well as help them stay sharp once they have a drone pilot job.
You might choose to fly it in light or heavy rain. You might send it through a warehouse or through a bridge inspection. You might fly it in a foggy day versus a super-sunny day — all options to simulate real-life scenarios any drone pilot would very likely encounter, yet perhaps might have flown in real life yet themselves.
Especially-useful for businesses looking to track flight hours is the fact that Zephyr logs flight times in the simulator, which are stored and can be accessed later online through the integrated learning management system. And there’s also a cheat-proof feature; if you are idle for too long in the simulator, the simulator will not count your report or flight time for that module. There’s also an optional integration with DroneLogbook where you can send your reports automatically to the DroneLogbook system, which are then included in your simulated flight time.
That said, while Zephyr is a key tool for enterprise pilots seeking to get more practice hours and develop skills — especially in otherwise precarious flying situations — Zephyr likely isn’t your best bet for drone racing simulators. It does have some modules and drones designed for racing, such as the Yuneec HD Racer. While they can be fun for an enterprise pilot to just toy around with, actual facers should skip the Zephyr. It just currently isn’t as expansive as other racing-focused simulators (in actuality, those folks seeking a racing simulator would be better off with the DRL simulator, which costs less than $10).
How much does the Zephyr drone simulator cost?
Luckily, the Zephyr drone simulator will require little investment — and perhaps none at all. There’s a beginner version which is free to download (though features are pretty limited to just one flight scenario: a community park). It’s a good option though just to try before you buy.
Then there’s a “hobbyist” version for just $10, and the full-feature version for $50.
Zephyr also sells sector-specific add-ons, such as a bridge inspection scenario and a NIST/APSA bundle designed specifically to provide training and test prep for the NIST Open Lane Test and the the APSA-NIST Basic Proficiency Evaluation for Remote Pilot (BPERP)the APSA-NIST Basic Proficiency Evaluation for Remote Pilot (BPERP). All options provide a strong value proposition, coupling a low-pain pricepoint with zero-risk drone operation that allows pilots to build confidence.
For entire organizations or businesses looking to leverage the drone simulator, Zephyr has enterprise solutions for businesses and the learning management system (LMS) in industry. Yes, “the”. As in, it’s the only one (there’s also a bulk discount for your organization if you commit to at least 100 licenses).
Though, you will also need your own controller (and unfortunately, DJI controllers are not supported). For most people, the smartest money move would be to purchase an Xbox One controller, which has the perfect balance of being affordable while also likely having plenty of other future use cases.
5 tips for getting the most out of Zephyr
The Zephyr development team shared some of their best tips for getting the most out of your time with the drone simulator:
- Use one of the many RC controllers the Zephyr drone simulator supports. Sure, a mouse and keyboard setup is supported, but you won’t get the same learning experience as you would with a controller. Among the supported controllers include:
- Be mindful. Practicing with focus and intent will lead to much greater benefits.
- Try all the drones. Zephyr has a big drone roster, so give them all a chance. Try a drone you’re interested in purchasing yourself or one you know is outside your real-world budget. You might never get your hands on a $22,000 Freefly Alta X drone, but at least you can fly a digital version of it.
- Check out a module package catered to your profession or field of interest. Zephyr offers a variety of modules sure to help you whether you’re looking to hone your skills in your current profession or checking out one you’re interested in pursuing.
- Take your time. Learning to pilot drones, like anything else, is more marathon than sprint. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll get frustrated. Take breaks when you need to and enjoy the process.
What’s on the horizon for Zephyr?
Zephyr has been around since 2016, but this is set to be a huge year for the U.S.-based drone software company.
The recently-released NIST Park scenario offers plenty of flyable environments and NIST test setups to practice with. The new scenario coincides perfectly with the imminent release of new functionality allowing real-world APSA certification through the simulator, a feature developed in partnership with APSA and DRONERESPONDERS.
Also recently announced was a partnership between Zephyr and the United States Air Force through the AFWERX program. This partnership will lead to exciting new features like thermal imaging, Blue UAS, mission planning, and beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).
Zephyr’s massive growth also comes at an opportune time, as DJI appears to have ceased offering support for its own in-house simulator, the DJI Virtual Flight app. A DJI spokesperson confirmed to Drone Girl in April 2023 that the DJI Virtual Flight app does not support DJI’s newest controller, the DJI RC Motion 2, adding that there were no plans for an update. And what’s more, the last time DJI’s simulator got an update in the Apple App Store was more than six months ago in September 2022. The Zephyr simulator is filling that void by supporting not just DJI drones, but tons more from other drone makers.
If you happen to be headed out to AUVSI’s annual XPONENTIAL conference this May in Denver, you can actually get some hands-on experience with the simulator yourself (and you can meet some of the team behind it). Zephyr will be at XPONENTIAL 2023 in Denver, Colorado from May 9 – 11 at Booth #2024.
Or if you’re skipping the Colorado trip, you can still get your hands on Zephyr today by downloading any of the versions (free or paid) here.