FPV Pilots Share Their Thoughts on Drone SIMs: Interview with Susan Kay Smith
Credit: Susan Kay Smith
Earlier this month, I spoke with FPV pilot Ryan Lindsay Lessard (aka Mako Reactra) about her experience as an FPV racer who uses drone simulators. To paint a better picture of what the world of drone SIM racing is like, Ryan put me in contact with Susan Smith (aka Roo), another pilot who is active in the FPV community and an avid SIM racer.
Susan Smith is an FPV drone racing pilot in real life, and she also races competitively in SIMs. She is a member of the Safety Third Racing Club and the team pilot for NewBeeDrone, a company based in San Diego, California that is dedicated to supporting newcomers to the FPV drone racing world: “We strive to support all the awesome pilots in the rapidly growing sport of FPV Racing, both locally here in San Diego, and all around the world!”
Susan seems to stand by that mantra as she is invested in helping more women start racing drones. She has stated that she wants to empower men, women, and students to reach for their dreams. She regularly posts about FPV racing on her YouTube channel: RooFPV, and you can find her on Instagram @roo_fpv.
Here’s what she had to say about SIMs:
What is your favorite simulator and why?
There are so many simulators available today! Some of the most well-known simulators are Velocidrone, Liftoff, DRL, and DCL. They can even run different types of drones such as whoops and even XClass. Velocidrone has a whoop and X-class add-on package, and there is another simulator for whoops known as Tiny Whoop Go.
Each of the simulators has its pros and cons! Velocidrone is widely used by drone racers, and it hosts realistic race tracks - as well as tracks that you could never fly in real-life that mimic flying through space. DRL allows you to run the same tracks that the TV pilots race on. The graphics are outstanding, and a few of the maps are particularly good for freestylers. I also really like the tutorial for new pilots. Liftoff was the first simulator I used regularly, and I love the tracks there as well; Joshua Bardwell’s backyard is replicated here for racing or freestyle. DCL is a newer SIM and boasts some of the impressive graphics in the space. DCL can also be run on PS4, which is allowing women without drone radio controllers to fly a drone.
The best part about a simulator is that you can usually add your exact drone setup so that it more closely mimics what you fly in real life. Whatever simulator you choose, you’ll learn to be a better drone pilot, whether you race or freestyle.
What was it like learning how to use drone simulators? Were your real-life skills completely transferable?
The great part about learning in a simulator is that you aren’t costing yourself hundreds of dollars in repairs while you learn! When you crash, you can just hit reset.
I know one pilot who practiced for several months in the simulator and then went to a real drone race. She had never flown a drone before in real life and was able to fly through the gates — and in fact did quite well in the race.
How well do you think simulators stack up against real-life FPV?
They stack up surprisingly well. Just like in real life, it takes a little time to “warm up” when flying a simulator. You’ll want to be patient with yourself as you try to learn. I explained it to a friend as like when she learned to drive a car or use a sewing machine. When you first drive a car, you push the gas pedal too hard, and then slam on the brake. The same thing happens with drones. You need to learn to be light on the sticks that control the drone because a little movement can go a long way.
Have you learned anything from playing simulators that translates into real life?
Absolutely! I learned to do power loops and flips in the simulator, both of which were moves I was afraid to do in real life for fear I’d lose or break my quadcopter.
One of my favorite things to use the simulator for is to experiment with different rates or camera angles. I can easily change my roll, pitch or yaw rates, and see how it affects my flying. I can even time myself over several laps to see more objectively how different rates affected my flying.
What is it like competing virtually vs in real life?
I was really surprised at how nervous I got when I began competing in SIM races. The adrenaline rush was crazy! My hands were shaking. My mouth was dry. There were butterflies in my stomach. When you race in the SIM, typically you are doing several races right in a row, whereas in real life you’ll only fly one battery at a time. For this reason, I actually think races in the SIM can cause more nerves at first than real life.
The benefit of doing so many SIM races is that now, I don’t get as nervous. Don’t get me wrong — I still feel the nerves when I’m under the spotlight, especially if the announcer is showing everyone my screen! But it is much less than when I first started. It has definitely helped me to calm my real-life nerves. Now, the race pressure doesn’t bother me nearly as much.
If someone was interested in competing, how could they get involved?
If you can, watch some of the SIM competitions! I like to watch them online while I’m practicing in the SIM. It’s a great way to see what some of the racing is like. But once you’re able to fly through a map, I’d encourage you to give it a shot! You can start with entering some multiplayer races within the SIM. This can give you a chance to practice what it’s like to race against other people.
Don’t be discouraged if you’re much slower than they are because you don’t know how long they’ve been flying or how much time they have available to practice. I was dead last in every SIM race I entered for a year, and now I sometimes can make it to the Top 7 when I’m racing. Once you’re able to complete laps — even if they’re slow — then you’re likely ready to step up to a race. Find an event that is beginner-friendly and go for it!
The races are typically run on a Discord channel, so you’ll want to join the server and be ready to listen. Be sure to read the rules and understand how the race works. For some races, you have a day or two to set a qualifying time. That is your fastest time on the map. Then, you simply need to show up at the race time. The race starts with the pilots divided into heats based on their qualifying time. For other races, the track is released to everyone at the same time, and you typically have an hour to set a qualifying time before pilots are divided into heats.
Everyone is very encouraging and welcoming — we all love when folks come to race for the first time. Give it a shot!
Do you have any tips for people looking to get involved in drone simulators and competitions?
Join the social media groups, and introduce yourself! You’ll find people who would love to practice and race with you.
Is there an online community of simulator racers?
Yes, there are several! You should look for a group of pilots who use your chosen SIM. Some of the ones I joined are:
Velocidrone Community Facebook group (see a variety of upcoming events)
Simubators Discord channel (variety of upcoming events)
Drone Racing League Discord channel
Fayetteville Multi Velocidrone Discord channel (features Wednesday night races for all levels)
What do you hope to see in simulators in the future?
I’d love to see more women competing on the simulator! A few weeks ago we had four women in a Velocidrone race, and that was the most women I had ever seen in a single race. I hope that more women will give it a shot because it’s a great way to practice real-life racing and improve stick skills.
I am a writer and an artist based in Georgia. Specializing in illustration, graphic design, and video art, I love to explore the new ways technology intersects with art. I think drones have done amazing things for photography and video art, making what would previously be costly and difficult more accessible. As a complete novice, it was only recently that I saw what independent artists could do with their drones, and I continue to be impressed by the sights that drones are able to explore and the images they can capture. Instagram: @tyesha.ferron