The Drone Racing League Simulator

The Drone Racing League Simulator

Written by Dave Gamble on 12/5/2017 for PC  
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I’ve been intrigued by the emergence of eSports because I have zero, none, nada, nil, zilch, and most especially, nary a smidgen of athletic ability. Sadly, though, this personal trait makes a poor companion to another facet of my personality: I’m competitive. No matter what it is, I want to beat you. Driving? Yep. When I’m behind the wheel of a car, there are only two other things sharing the road with me: opponents and obstacles. Faster than me? Opponent. Slower? Obstacle. Take it from me: having a competitive nature in a guy that buys his muscle shirts in the Boys 8 to 10 department is no way to go through life.

However, that the advent of esports is no panacea. Sure, physical strength doesn’t matter nearly as much in that arena (so to speak), but reaction time, visual acuity, excellent muscle memory, and the need for hours and hours of practice are still essential components for being competitive. From that list, I think I can safely say that the only thing I have in sufficient quantity is time, although the discipline to spend a great deal of it practicing stuff is not on my list of things that I have in any degree of abundance.

As may be. You don’t go to the drone races with the skills you want, you go to the drone races with the dope drone flying skillz you have. I’ve seen drone racing on TV, so it’s not like I was going into this blind: I knew that this was going to be a very tough thing to try. The astonishingly quick reaction times these folks display was in and of itself an extremely obvious sign that I would not be winning many, if any, races. Pair that with the blinkered view they get from the FPV headset and the arrant twitchiness of the awkward-flying drones and you have the exact recipe for ignominious and abject defeat for anyone not possessing very fine-tuned and precise drone flying skills.

In other words, me.

That doesn’t mean I’m not interested, though, which is why I was excited to try out an ultra-safe (well, it’s not like these guys die in crashes, so…. ultra-cheap?) way of trying my hand at it. No broken drones (or bones), no hunting for replacement parts, and no crashing of the daggone thing into soft, easily bruised things like, well, me. Who would say no to that?

Certainly not me. I have, through personal experience, found that the best way to learn the fundamentals of any type of flying, from both a cost and safety point of view, is with a simulator. Sims also provide limited access to experiences you would likely never get to experience at all in real life. Drone racing isn’t a perfect example of that, given that drones are actually relatively affordable, far more so than, say, a Formula 1 car, but even without the Walter Mitty aspect, a good simulator can give you a pretty good idea as to what you would be up against if you decided to try it for real.

Here’s a spoiler: it is very, very hard. To be fair, I was starting out with a certain disadvantage from my years of past flying experience. Over the last 40 years, I have flown both R/C and real airplanes quite a lot. The muscle motions and memories ingrained from all of that fixed-wing flying were going to make the transition to a first-person-view (FPV) drone murderously hard. Fixed-wing airplanes in particular, and rotary-wing helicopters to a lesser degree, fly nothing at all like quadcopters. 

At this point in my progression, I am starting to think that someone with literally no flying experience at all would have an advantage over me. It is proving nigh on impossible to re-train my reactions and responses to support drone flying, and I am not 100 percent sure that I want to. I still fly both real and model airplanes—it might be a bad idea to continue doing that with a drone physics mentality.

So, after 500 words on the subject of “I don’t know what I’m talking about,” let’s chat a little bit about The Drone Racing League Simulator. Not surprisingly, this drone racing simulator is being developed by The Drone Racing League, or DRL. It is stated that the DRL is the premier drone racing league. Being both a sports and media company, DRL combines world-class pilots, iconic locations, and proprietary technology to create engaging drone racing content with mass appeal. If that sounds like the net result of a two-hour marketing meeting, well, it probably should. I snagged it right off of their website.

An interesting thing about the way DRL is approaching this nascent market is the soup-to-nuts methodology. They provide the means of entry with the simulator combined with the chance for one very capable pilot to win a $75,000 contract to fly for DRL in the 2018 season. I assume that they will be racing actual drones and not the simulator—the line is a little blurry here. That said, the “tracks” included with the sim are the exact same ones used in the real races I watched on YouTube, so it makes perfect sense to provide a way for racers to practice on the same tracks they will be using during the series.

The simulator assumes no prior knowledge or experience in drone flying and provides a very detailed and very lengthy tutorial to get new fliers up to speed. It also has three difficulty levels to ease the learning curve: Beginner, which turns on the drone’s gyros to provide stability assistance, altitude hold, and sets a limit on pitch and roll angles. Intermediate does away with the stability and altitude hold, but still limits the angles, albeit not as stridently. Pro Mode just gives it to you as raw as an oyster. Each of the tougher levels comes with its own set of tutorials. For the record, I could only manage to fly at the intermediate level. This is, I like to tell myself, why the entire pack sped away from me at the start of every race I tried.

Once through the tutorials, or having reached a “this is as good as I’m gonna get” point, you can press on with the more competitive aspects. Your choices here are Freestyle, Race, or Campaign. I used Freestyle as a way to practice flying outside of the constraints of the tutorials. Outside of that, I know nothing about it. Presumably it’s like ice skating, wherein the performer is judged for style and ability. That isn’t racing, though, so I didn’t pay much attention to it as anything other than a way to practice. 'Race' is exactly what you would expect. There are a dozen tracks/events to choose from, a good handful of drones to use, and AI opponents if you want to test yourself against non-judgmental lines of code rather than trash-talking human contestants. Campaign allows you to try the DRL 2016 season, or you can register for the 2018 DRL tryouts and your shot at that $75,000 racing contract. There is also an online multiplayer mode, but if my experience with the lobby is anything to go by, bring your own players because I have yet to find any ready and waiting participants.

So here is the tricky part: I simply cannot tell you if the modeled drones fly anywhere near accurately. This is not because I am a superb example of how not to fly a drone, although that is still a major factor. I say that it is impossible to judge for accuracy because the flight and control behaviors of modern drones are nearly infinitely configurable by the pilot. On the other hand, I do firmly believe that the sim is of high enough quality and fidelity to teach you one of two things: how to fly and race a drone, or whether you may be better served by looking into learning to play darts. I also believe that it could literally save you hundreds of dollars and hours of frustration while doing so. Also, it is very likely that your success or failure could be influenced by the means you are using to control the sim. I had hoped to use my Tactic transmitter, but it’s a cheap one and doesn’t have the required USB port. I used an Xbox controller which worked well enough, but the additional stick throw of the transmitter would have been nice to have. I also had a problem with getting the sim to recognize the controller; I have a Steam controller that I don’t use, but there was a config setting that told Windows to map a 360 controller as a Steam controller. This was easily fixed with a simple question in the Discussions pages in the Steam store. The sim still refuses to remember the assignment of the 360 controller across sessions, which is a minor irritant, but that may be fixed as they continue to push out updates. There is also a non-zero probability that I am still doing something wrong in the config screen.

If you have any interest at all in learning how to fly an FPV racing drone, even if you want to limit it to online multiplayer or racing against AI, The Drone Racing League Simulator is something you should consider. If you’re thinking about racing real drones and have no prior experience, a training simulator will make a good investment. While I personally didn’t reach what I would consider to be a good degree of competence with it, I do not consider that to reflect poorly on the simulator. That was all me and my clumsily slow reaction times. Besides which, it’s fun. That means I will probably keep on trying to get better at it. Someday you just might tune in some eSports on ESPN and say, “Wow! He made it after all!”

I just wouldn’t count on it.

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.

My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.

While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.

My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.
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