Over the past few months, I've explained some of the basics of drone photography and offered pointers on creating cinematic drone footage. I enjoyed sharing those tips, but the most important item to chew on is the necessity of repetition. Practice, practice, practice! If you're a drone pilot with aspirations of building a brand around your aerial photography or cinematography, practice is vital. But what do you do when practice sessions are limited due to inclement weather or cold temperatures? I have dreaded the extended rainy days in my area, as it has limited my practice time. Fortunately, I have found an option to help stay on top of my piloting skills: the Zephyr drone simulator.
SEE: Getting started with drone photography (TechRepublic PDF)
What is Zephyr?
The company with by far the coolest logo I've seen, Little Arms Studio, has a way to keep your drone piloting skills fresh with a drone simulator. The simulator works on Mac or Windows computers and has to be connected to the internet. Sorry, Linux geeks. There's no support for your beloved OS. The software costs between $99 and $139, depending upon the type of package you purchase. More on that in a moment.
How does Zephyr work?
The Zephyr drone simulator is pretty close to a plug-and-play experience. The software connects to the Zephyr services and checks for software updates and patches before launching for play as you log in with your username and password. Don't worry, the update process is short and painless (unlike a typical Windows update).
Once logged in, you can configure the app to work with your drone transmitter (controller) so you can be comfortable with the nobs and switches. Controller? Yes, that's right. The software comes with a drone transmitter depending upon the package you order. Hence the range of licensing prices. And these aren't the transmitters you get from the mall kiosk with toy drones. These are the FS models from FlySky. I used the FS-I6S transmitter in my testing. It connects via USB to your computer. This transmitter feels great in my hands and reminds me of the transmitter used with the popular DJI Phantom drones, as well as my own Autel Robotics X-Star Premium drone. The transmitter allows you to configure camera controls as well as has the spring-loaded throttle. All in the sake of making the piloting experience more comfortable.
SEE: Quick glossary: Drones (Tech Pro Research)
The simulator experience
I'll admit, I was skeptical about the simulator at first. I went into the experience thinking it wouldn't be any different from a race car video game on my computer. Sure, it would offer a first person view during game play, but would it really give me the feel of flying my drone? In a word: somewhat. If you're a drone pilot used to flying custom FPV drones, such as a Wizard X220, you won't benefit as much as pilots flying drones more for the world of photography or videography.
There are several training modules and obstacle courses for varying flight experiences. Each module allows you to be graded on different technical aspects of the flight plan. The courses range from simple tasks such as landing your drone in a designated area to flying your drone indoors through an obstacle course. Not all courses are super simple and easy to complete. The simulator will really make you work to become a better drone pilot. Courses are graded, which (are supposed to) give you immediate feedback on items you scored well on versus the items you may have failed miserably.
The look and feel of the simulator is what impressed me. Like a typical video game you'd install, you have the option to customize the visual experience depending upon the hardware your computer runs. If you have at least a Core i5 CPU and 4GB of RAM, you'll be just fine, as that's the recommended hardware specs, along with a GPU capable of running Direct-X. My GTX 770 graphics card ran the simulator at the max video settings on my 2560x1440 monitor well with no jitter or tearing on the screen. Running the Zephyr software at max video settings allowed me to fully experience drone flight as if I were outside flying.
SEE: Drones: Learn Aerial Photography and Videography Basics (TechRepublic Academy)
What I liked about the Zephyr experience
Drone selection in the simulator ranged from the smaller, less expensive Syma X5 all the way up to the $3,000 DJI Inspire. As in real life, different drones have similar controls yet may behave differently based on weight, propeller, or motor types. Just because you can fly the tiny two-pound Syma drone, that doesn't mean flying the six-pound DJI Inspire will be a breeze.
The simulator was quite realistic in the piloting experience. The scenes vary in difficulty and really immerse you as a drone pilot. For example, you can take a practice flight around an empty park for fun. This experience allows you to get used to different altitudes as well as maneuvering around large objects, such as a jungle gym. It really gets interesting when you're locked into a certain position while at the park or other non-FPV modules. This forces you to take visual depth perception into consideration. The FAA mandates all UAS pilots to fly with line of sight of their drone, and the Zephyr software does a great job of simulating this experience. Among my favorite modules was one that required me to land the drone onto a park table that was roughly 30 feet away from my standing position. You have no idea how large the park table is unless you notice how large the nearby tables are. Of course I crashed the drone on my first few attempts to land, but I eventually mastered that skill.
I also enjoyed the environment variables of the simulator. With the graphics running at maximum settings, you can take wind into account. You'll be able to see just how strong the wind is by noticing the wind sock within the scene (if applicable), but you can also see the wind whipping through treetops or grass. I discussed taking wind into consideration when getting started with drone photography. With the wind being a factor, your drone reacts accordingly in the simulator, sometimes drifting a little too much or even slowing down slightly when trying to navigate to a particular position. I liked the attention to detail when I crashed at a scene: My crashed drone would still be visible on my re-test at crash site. Cute.
Overall, the controls of the drone in the simulator are true to life. I've flown a few times with the Autel drone, which I own, as the practice aircraft and it didn't feel any different in handling or responsiveness. It was pretty neat watching my less than popular drone fly around on my computer screen. When it comes to third-party accessories and options, the pickings are slim to none for my Autel.
SEE: How to make your landscape photography stand out (TechRepublic)
What I didn't like
This is a short list. I didn't like the FPV window that's embedded in the "line of sight" modules. For example, I mentioned the experience of trying to land the drone on a park table in the distance. In a real-world scenario, I would use line of sight as well as my connected mobile device to see what the drone sees in a first person view. It's nice that the FPV is on the screen of the simulator, but the placement isn't ideal for me. When you're flying your drone, you look down to your mobile display for telemetry data or your camera view. You don't look down and to the right as the simulator shows. Also, the embedded FPV is really small, making it difficult to see the details of a scene. I would prefer an option to move the window and to scale it to a size suitable for my eyes. I couldn't find an option to allow this functionality.
Lastly, in some instances where I failed a module, I didn't get feedback on what led to my low grade. Maybe this is a bug that can be addressed in a future software update.
Who is the Zephyr simulator for?
The ideal candidate for the Zephyr software are flight schools. Ordering for the enterprise allows for several seat licenses for an onsite administrator to manage, with support from Little Arms Studio. Solo pilots aiming to sharpen their skills can get great use out of this software, but may fare better in a classroom environment, such as a flight school. It just depends on the learning style of the pilot. It must be noted that Zephyr does not state that completing the modules successfully will lead to a passing grade on the UAS Part 107 certification test. You should still study diligently for the certification—but Zephyr could serve as a supplement to your general studies.
I think the Zephyr drone simulator is a great idea and a pretty good value for beginner pilots. Seasoned pilots may pass on this package. I'm a firm believer in flying the smaller, less expensive drones, crashing them, and then assessing how the crash happened. All of this can be done with Zephyr, but with even better drones. Fortunately, when you crash in the simulator, you're not looking at a potential repair bill.
- Drones: Why it's time to build a business case (Tech Pro Research)
- CASA to work with DJI on suitability of drone "bubble" technology in Australia (ZDNet)
- DJI adds some variety to its Mavic Pro, Phantom 4 Pro drones (CNET)
- Parrot Bebop 2: The FPV drone for work? (TechRepublic)
Does the idea of practicing your drone piloting skills via a simulator appeal to you? Share your opinions with fellow drone enthusiasts.
Ant Pruitt is an IT Support Professional with a passion for showing the non-geek how great technology can be. He writes for a variety of tech publications and hosts his own podcast. Ant is also an avid photographer and weight lifter.