I focus a lot of my writing on the techniques and tools that can help you become a better multi-rotor pilot. There's good reason for my fixation on training. No matter how fancy and advanced your model may be, the skill with which you operate it is the greatest single factor in determining your success and safety. When things go south, competency trumps hope every time.
I've mentioned the RealFlight RC flight simulator in a previous article. RealFlight has historically been a tool for pilots of RC helicopters and fixed wing airplanes. Multi-rotor models were introduced only in the most recent versions of the program. Real Flight's latest release is a simulator package that is intended specifically for multi-rotor pilots, Real Flight Drone ($130).
What You Get
RealFlight Drone (RFD) comes bundled with a Futaba InterLink Elite controller. This is a USB device with the same look and feel as a standard RC transmitter. If you have a particular attachment to your actual RC transmitter, the InterLink Elite includes patch cords that allow you to use a Futaba, JR, or Spektrum brand transmitter to operate the simulator.
The actual software is on a single DVD. It is compatible with Vista or later versions of Windows. The program will not work on Macs…even when using a Windows emulator. The system requirements are pretty low. So you shouldn't have any problems if you're machine is relatively new. I've been using RFD on an aging Sony Vaio laptop (1.6GHz CPU, 6GB RAM, GeForce GT330M video) and it runs just fine.
RFD appears to be a subset of RealFlight v7.5 at a lower price. It includes most of the multi-rotor models and many of the flying sites found in v7.5, but it does not have any helicopter or airplane models. On the flip side, there are a few multi-rotor models that are currently only found in RFD. If you're only interested in multi-rotors, going with RFD rather than v7.5 will save you about $40. Should you subsequently decide that you want the full-blown software, upgrading from RFD to v7.5 will cost you $50.
There are 14 multi-rotor models to choose from with a wide variety of performance capabilities. If you're a beginner pilot, you'll probably want to start with a docile ship like the simply-named "Quadcopter". As you progress, you can tackle models with more power and additional features such as gimbal-mounted cameras. You may even want to try the insanely aerobatic model of the HeliMax Voltage 500.
As with most actual multi-rotors, the emulated models have multiple modes to define their flight characteristics. Each model has up to three predefined flight modes to choose from. Some flight modes will hold the aircraft in position without any control inputs, while others demand you to manage altitude and compensate for wind. Still others give you complete freedom for aerobatics. Choosing the correct flight mode for a given situation is every bit as important as your control stick inputs. The simulator provides a useful path to understand the attributes and limitations of each flight mode.
The controller also allows you to select between two control sensitivity options (aka "dual rates"). The rate settings are predefined for every model, but I didn't find much that I would adjust if given the option. For the models that are equipped with camera gimbals, a knob on the controller allows you to adjust the pitch angle of the gimbal.
You can choose to fly at any of 20 different "airports". Some have obstacles to test your skills, while others are more scenic. Two of the airports even allow you to fly at night with onboard lights illuminating your model.
Using Real Flight Drone
Using RFD does not have to be a complex affair. It can be as simple as choosing a model and a location to fly before taking off. The simulator offers many different viewing perspectives, but only two of them accurately emulate the actual experience of flying a model. Whenever you're really flying, you will either be looking at your model from where you stand, or you will be looking through the onboard camera via goggles or a monitor. Those two perspectives are represented by the "Fixed Position- Flight Instructor" and "FPV View" (or "Gimbal" on some models). The other perspectives are fun to play with on occasion, but I try to focus on the realistic viewing options.
There are several "gadgets" that can be overlaid on the screen. Most are specific to the simulation and do not reflect actual flying. One example is the binocular function, which gives you a close-up view of your model's orientation no matter how far away it is. A more realistic gadget is the Head-Up Display, which provides an array of flight data much like an instrument panel would. It functions similarly to many of the On-Screen displays used by FPV modelers.
Since I'm not using much computing horsepower to run this program, I have the video quality set to medium. Although you would never mistake the graphics for a photo, I think it looks good. Most importantly, the simulator runs smoothly. When I tried running with higher video quality, things got jumpy. My guess is that you could run without compromise if you have a decent gaming machine.
If you have a particular skill that you are trying to improve, the simulator lets you do that with much less stress and risk than actual flying. You can practice for as long as it takes to get it right. The only consequence of a crash is that you have to press the reset button and start over. Actually, you don't even have to start from the beginning. You can hold down the reset button and your current session will rewind. Just release the button at the point where you goofed and try again.
As you gain more confidence, you can gradually make your training more realistic by adding factors such as wind or poor sun angles. You'll rarely find perfect flying conditions in the real world, so it makes sense to practice with the same types of hindrances.
In addition to self-guided training, RFD provides two challenge features. "Quadcopter Trials" is meant test your precision flying abilities. You must fly through, around, and onto a variety of increasingly challenging obstacles…all while the clock is ticking. I found that these courses are very helpful for getting comfortable flying a multi-rotor in any orientation.
The other challenge is called 'Scavenger Hunt". All of the courses here are FPV-based and are meant to help you improve your piloting when using the limited situational-awareness that FPV provides. The final course has you seek out and photograph various zombies in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Although the scenario is pure fantasy, the skills required to carry out the tasks certainly apply to real life. Although, at times, I found myself taking shortcuts to beat the clock rather than focusing on smooth and precise flying.
Performing well on the challenges will earn you medals that unlock additional models to fly. So far, I've added the "Dead Cat Quadcopter" to my training fleet. It looks just like the same suggests and it is fun to fly. I can't wait to see what other unique models are locked in the vault.
Many people believe that simulators are only helpful for rookie pilots, but that is definitely not the case. They are good practice tools for pilots of any skills level. In the time that I've been using RFD, I've committed a lot of effort to improving my airborne camera panning skills. I've also seen a tremendous improvement in my confidence and ability to fly inverted with the Voltage 500. All stick time is beneficial and simulators like RFD significantly broaden the window where it's practical to fly.
My recommended path for beginning multi-rotor pilots is to start out with a mini-quad or a simulator…preferably both. Mini-quads are cheap and great for providing practical, hands-on flight experience with very little risk. While more costly, simulators drop the risk factor to zero and also provide access to more powerful and complex models. You're not likely to ever outgrow either option.
For those who choose to utilize a simulator, RealFlight has always been the gold standard. RealFlight Drone gets you the multi-rotor functions of the software at a lower price point than the full blown version. It only takes one or two avoided crashes for a simulator to pay for itself, so it's definitely something to consider.