Drone simulators can be a great way for newbies to learn how to fly a drone without risking damaging your expensive new toy. But they’re not just for newbies. Pilots using drones for industrial applications, intricate cinematography and even competitive drone racing turn to drone simulators to practice advanced maneuvers and to prepare for flying in challenging conditions.
Given the range of use cases and target audiences, there are all sorts of drone simulators on the market — and not all of them are created equal. Some are more realistic while others have more of an imaginative video game vibe. Some offer more features — and often typically come with a higher price tag.
As you search for the best drone simulator, here are a few things to consider:
- Realism: How realistic is the simulator’s physics engine? Does it accurately simulate the flight characteristics of real drones?
- Features: What features does the simulator offer? Does it have a variety of different drones to choose from? Does it allow you to practice flying in different environments?
- Price: Drone simulators can range in price from free to hundreds of dollars. Choose a simulator that fits your budget and needs.
With those three features in mind, we analyzed about a dozen drone simulators on the market, and decided to call out a few of the best ones. So with that, here are the best drone simulators on the market in 2023:
Zephyr: the best drone simulator for industrial applications
Cost: starts at $10 for “hobbyist” version, though full feature version costs $50
Target audience: hobbyists who might be interested in getting into the industrial side of drones, as well as pilots seeking to practice for industrial applications
Company behind it: Little Arms Studios, based in Manassas, Virginia
Zephyr Drone Simulator is a drone pilot training simulator developed by Little Arms Studios, which is a Virginia-based software company building flight simulation products for high schools, higher education, public safety entities, businesses and even the United States Air Force.
Zephyr takes the cake as the best drone simulator for industrial applications because it has among the most realistic flight models you’ll find in a simulator. When using the simulator, you can select the specific drone you want to use from more than a dozen popular enterprise and camera drones, ranging from the DJI Mavic Pro and Autel X-Star on the consumer end, to products like the DJI Matrice or Freefly Alta X on the enterprise end.
The customization doesn’t stop there. You can select flight conditions to operate in (e.g. ultra-bright, sunny day vs. heavy rain) and the place you want to fly (e.g. interior of a warehouse vs. through the posts of a bridge).
When you first use Zephyr, you’ll likely want to start out with the hobbyists version, which costs just $10. If you’re ready for more, you might upgrade to the full-feature version for $50. There are also a few options for in-simulator purchases to add on more flight scenarios, 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.
Zephyr has some pretty strong endorsements, including a partnership with APSA and DRONERESPONDERS, as well as a partnership with the United States Air Force through the AFWERX program.
DRL SIM: the best drone simulator for FPV racing
Target audience: Gamers, drone racers
Company behind it: Drone Racing League, based in New York, New York
The Drone Racing League, which is generally considered the largest drone racing company in the world, offers its own drone simulator, which is available for purchase for about $10 on PlayStation, Xbox, Steam and the Epic Games store.
The video game nature of this drone simulator makes it a fun pick for people who might not necessarily be interested in flying physical drones, but who like gaming and might want something a bit more unique from the classic car racing games. Then again, it’ll likely inspire you to actually get into drone racing, regardless.
The whole thing has an incredible community vibe, with fun features like a public leaderboard posted online.
The DRL SIM is also pretty neat in that it has a real, in-person component of high value: DRL hosts an annual Racing Cup to find the world’s best drone pilot. And every year, one of the slots to compete in the tournament comes from the DRL Sim. DRL hosts DRL SIM Tryouts, with the winner of that receiving an invite to compete as the official DRL SIM Pilot in the real DRL World Championship for that year.
DJI Try Virtual Flight: best free option for DJI pilots
Target audience: Consumer drone pilots looking for a free option
Company behind it: DJI, based in China
DJI Flight is a fun, free simulator built into the DJI Store app, which is available in the Google Play and Apple App stores. When you download the app, the homepage is all about the DJI Store (after all, DJI wants your money). But when you navigate to the Explore tab, you can virtually fly DJI’s latest consumer drones, such as the DJI Mini 4 Pro.
The app is free, and it definitely serves as cool marketing for the latest and greatest features, which in the case of the DJI Mini 4 Pro is omnidirectional obstacle sensing (with four wide-angle vision sensors and two downward vision sensors).
The simulator app is pretty fun in that DJI gives you ‘missions,’ like ‘find the source of the river,’ upon which you’ll have to navigate through their made-up animated world along the water.
The app is pretty basic with three flight modes, but it does throw in some realistic flight physics that entail real-world scenarios like wind gusts.
Unlike the other simulators, it’s not very robust so will likely only keep your attention for a limited time. But given that it’s free to download and play, there’s not a lot to lose by giving it a try.
DJI Flight Simulator: best paid option for serious DJI pilots
Cost: $0 for trial version, otherwise varies by dealer
Target audience: Enterprise drone pilots using DJI drones
Company behind it: DJI, based in China
DJI Virtual Flight is fun for casual consumer pilots, but drone pilots seeking serious skills training specific to enterprise applications such as power line inspections or search and rescue will want to turn to the DJI Flight Simulator.
This professional pilot training software uses DJI’s existing flight control technology to recreate the natural flying experience in a digital format. There is a freebie trial version, though you won’t get all the features with that one. For the most valuable features like application training, you’ll need to reach out to a DJI enterprise dealer to buy the full software.
And, it’s definitely not cheap. For example, B&H Photo sells a single seat for the Energy version of the DJI Flight Simulator Software for $1,350. To unlock the full version, which you’ll want for teams, it’s $7,500.
You’ll also need a Windows PC and DJI Remote controller to access the DJI Flight Simulator. Once downloaded, you can use it to simulate flying various DJI drones from the Mavic Series, Phantom Series, Inspire Series, and the Matrice 200 Series. Then again, while the price tag isn’t cheap, it’s a lot cheaper than getting into a crash in a hairy flying environment on critical infrastructure.
Download the free trial version of DJI Virtual flight here.
The bottom line on drone simulators
Clearly there’s a drone simulator for everyone. Serious enterprise users flying DJI drones and who want to ensure they’ve received top-of-the-line practice might pay $7,500 for DJI’s official Flight Simulator software. But even for just $50, third-party flight simulators like Zephyr offer a similar experience at a far lower price point.
And for people looking to just mess around and have fun, products like the DJI Try Virtual Flight simulator or the DRL Simulator can provide some of the joy of flying drones, without actually having to fly a drone.
Which drone simulator do you use and recommend? Leave a comment below!