A state-of-the-art drone flying simulator called DRL Simulator is out on Steam today and it’s as close to the real thing as you’re going to get without spending hundreds of dollars on a high-end drone.
DRL Simulator was created by the Drone Racing League (DRL), the premiere competitive league for professional drone racing. The simulator goes through all the basics of drone piloting, allowing people to get a feel for what it’s like to fly a real drone, and works all the way up to the most difficult professional levels of drone racing.
The simulator is so true-to-life that DRL is actually using it to host tryouts to its 2018 competitive drone racing season, with the top simulator pilots getting a chance to earn thousands of dollars.
Drone racing is actually one of the few things that you can practice virtually and have it translate pretty much 1:1 to real-world application. All you need is a controller with two joysticks and you’re basically experiencing what it’s like to fly a real drone.
Ryan Gury, director of product at the Drone Racing League, pointed out that this makes the simulator pretty unique.
“If you play Grand Theft Auto or Forza, you can’t really get from that game into a Formula One car and drive it proficiently,” he said. “[DRL Simulator] is actually the thing where, because it uses two sticks, you can come from this and fly an actual racing drone.”
But why wouldn’t somebody who’s serious about drone racing just get their own race-ready drone and practice with that?
The first factor: Drones aren’t cheap and they’re pretty easy to crash. That’s a big cost that can add up quickly.
The second factor: Not just anyone can get their hands on these drones, just like not everyone can buy a Formula One car. The drones used in pro-level DRL races are custom-built and go from zero to 80 mph in less than a second, whereas most consumer drones top out at 30 mph.
Getting to the big leagues
After mastering the basics in DRL Simulator, players can take a shot at racing through the actual courses from the 2017 DRL season. The top 24 players with the lowest cumulative times on the five courses then compete in a love tournament in February, the winner getting a $75,000 contract and a chance to compete around the world in the 2018 season.
The whole thing sounds like a mix between an esport and a traditional sport, but which one is it?
Nicholas Horbaczewski, CEO and founder of the Drone Racing League, doesn’t have a satisfying answer for people who like to keep the two competitive fields separated.
“It’s actually both — however you want to think about,” he said in an interview. “There are people who perceive it as an esport where, you know, at the highest level of competition the top 16 people in the world get to fly real drones and there are people who perceive this as a real-life sport with an esport tryout.”
The top level of drone racing put on by DRL is broadcast on channels like ESPN and Sky Sports, with millions of people tuning in to watch the fast-paced, first-person races.
Here’s a look at one of the races from the 2017 season, where pilots flew around the Miami Dolphins stadium at insane speeds:
There are amateur races around the world, but people there either use slower drones or build their own, faster drones. DRL levels the playing field with its own drones so it’s less about which pilot has the best drone and more about who has the best flying skills.
The DRL competitors aren’t racing just for fun, either. The top pilot at the end of the season gets a six-figure contract to race in the next season. That means if you have a latent drone racing ability that you haven’t gotten a chance to flex yet and you win the simulator tryouts, you have another shot at making out with a ton of money.
Last year, DRL did a similar online tryout with a much earlier version of a drone simulator, which was won by Jacob “Jawz” Schneider. Schneider went on to take the top time at one of the individual races and placed seventh at the end of the season.
Being a top competitor in something like drone racing isn’t for everyone though, and the DRL Simulator isn’t just about finding the next best pro pilot.
For new pilots, it’s a safe way to figure out the basics (and not-so-basics) of flying drones. For people who don’t even have drones, it can become an addictive fixation, trying to get the fastest times on different courses to take no. 1 on the leaderboard.
DRL Simulator is available on Steam for $19.99.