Testing the Liftoff Drone Racing Simulator

By Terry Dunn

Liftoff is one of the few flight simulators that's designed to emulate the demands of high-speed FPV flying.

I've written about several RC flight simulators over the years. There is no doubt that they are excellent tools for developing and polishing your piloting skills. Many sims let you fly multi-rotor models. Some also have First Person View (FPV) features. But very few programs are actually designed to emulate the specific demands of flying a high-speed FPV quad through a challenging race course. Liftoff is one of those simulators.

The Basics

Liftoff is a Steam game. I assume that most of us here are familiar with the Steam platform. The minimum system requirements are pretty reasonable. In fact, I have been running Liftoff on a mid-range laptop that doesn't quite hit all of the minimums. The game has been running just fine in single player mode. With that being said, there are still quite a few features that I have not yet utilized. It is possible that some of those features could require more horsepower to run well.

Don't expect life-like graphics here. You won't find them. However, I think that the image quality is good enough for the sim's intended purpose. What's important to me is that the game runs smoothly and without lag on my machine. It does this even at the highest video quality settings.

Flying a speedy racing quad through air gates is tougher than it looks. Training on a simulator helps.

Knowing that it isn't really practical to review all aspects of this simulator, I decided to focus on its core functionality: training to become a better racing quad pilot. For some, that might mean starting at square one. As you will see, I came in with a fair bit of varied experience flying all types of multi-rotors…and perhaps an over-inflated confidence in my abilities.

In addition to the single-player flight simulation, you can race against other people online, create your own race course, design a cyber multi-rotor, and other neat things. But those capabilities are garnish to the fundamental purpose of the sim. People who are really into gaming may have an interest in such features. I'm okay ignoring them.

Game Controllers

A mere $20 gets you the simulation software. You will also need some type of controller to play the game. Liftoff will recognize gamepads and Xbox controllers, but you really should use a controller with the look and feel of an actual RC transmitter. There are several options you can choose from. I used three different input devices during my testing: A Fat Shark Radio, an Interlink Elite, and my Spektrum DX8. All worked with no issues at all. I only had to use Liftoff's built-in calibration tool the first time using any device.

The Fat Shark Radio is included with the Fat Shark 101 system, but can also be purchased separately. The frame of the transmitter is a little smaller than standard, but the gimbals are full-size. A handy aspect of the Fat Shark is that it connects to my PC with just a micro-USB cable. No third-party interface is required.

I used three different controllers while testing Liftoff (L to R): Fat Shark Radio, Interlink Elite, Spektrum DX8. All worked well.

I have a couple of Interlink Elite transmitters that were included with versions of the Real Flight RC simulator. This device is a USB controller built on the chassis of a full-size Futaba transmitter. Although this controller is designed specifically for Real Flight, it works very well in Liftoff. As far as I know, you can only buy the Interlink devices as a package with Real Flight software (which only recently added FPV racing simulation). Those of you with an Interlink controller from an older version of Real Flight can use it here with no problem.

I fly several of my actual racing quads using a Spektrum DX8 transmitter. So it only makes sense to use the exact same device for training. The only drawback is that a separate USB interface is required to attach it to your computer. Several different types of interfaces are available from many vendors. Do a search and see what fits your transmitter. Spektrum offers a wireless unit for their transmitters, although I've never used one. I have a generic wired interface that was included with one of my other simulators. That's what I used with Liftoff and it worked well.

Training with Liftoff

As I mentioned earlier, I came into this review with a healthy confidence in my flying abilities. I've literally flown dozens of multi-rotors, including many FPV racing quads. I recently weaned myself off of self-leveling flight modes and have become comfortable with rate modes. Although I've never flown one of my quads on an actual FPV course, I like to go fast and perform aerobatics...that's pretty close to racing, right? Well, no. It didn't take long to figure out that my confidence was grossly misplaced.

The game includes video tutorials and practice areas to help rookie pilots learn the basics.

Going fast with a quad is one thing. Going fast while directing the quad to a precise 3-dimensional point in the sky is something else entirely. That's what it takes to fly a quad though the air gates that define an FPV race course. And let's not forget that those gates usually hug the unforgiving ground. There is little margin for error. My early testing of Liftoff was full of missed gates and dramatic crashes. Actually, I still have a lot of missed gates and crashes, but I'm getting much better. Herein lies the beauty of simulators. The crashes and mistakes cost nothing…not even a broken prop. Just hit reset and try again.

I've found that I have to pace myself when I use Liftoff. I can tolerate the simulated FPV perspective for about 20 minutes at a time. After that, I start to get a headache and sometimes a little queasiness. I'll fly for 15-20 minutes, take a break, and come back to it. I've never had the same physiological effects with real FPV flight. But those flights typically last 4-5 minutes with at least a few minutes in between.

Race courses have varying degrees of complexity and obstacle density for each of the skill levels.

For those who are just starting out with quads, Liftoff includes a series of tutorial videos that explain how the controls work. There are also hands-on training courses that allow you to exercise the skills you've just learned. The only catch is that there is no feedback on your performance. Liftoff provides an unobstructed venue for you to practice, but does not critique how well you are accomplishing the tasks. You practice until you feel you've got it down.

You can choose to fly any of several different quads within the simulator.

Once you've moved beyond the tutorials, Liftoff has predefined racecourses to fit different skill levels. The lowest level course is essentially a square course located in a hay field. Other than the gates and flags marking the course, the only obstructions are hay bales and an elevation change. Stepping up to the next level places you in a forest where you must dodge trees and large boulders as you wind though the course. I'd tell you what comes next, but I'll be honest…I'm still trying to conquer the hay bales.

There are numerous different quad designs that you can choose to fly. Each has its own feel. So don't be afraid to try them all and see what fits you best. The flight performance of any real quad is largely determined by the programming of the onboard flight controller. The same is true here. Liftoff provides tuning options that mirror the look and feel of BetaFlight, which is the firmware and configuration tool used by many flight controllers.

The flight tuning options within Liftoff mirror the same options used for BetaFlight, a popular firmware used on real racing quads.

Learning to tune your flight controller is an important skill for aspiring race pilots. The methods for doing so are not necessarily intuitive. With PIDs, super rates, expo, and other abstract terminology, it can actually be downright confusing to newcomers. None of the tutorials currently within Liftoff address the program's quad tuning options. But that's okay. Since the tuning screen in Liftoff mirrors the same options found in BetaFlight Configurator, tutorials for BetaFlight apply here as well.

This video about rates is a great place to start:

I generally felt like the default settings for every quad were more sensitive than I like. Actually, they were fine for freestyle flying in the sim. But I had much better luck getting around the race course whenever I retuned my quad to have less control authority. It's great that those tuning options are there, but noobs will have to do some of the legwork offline to understand it all.

I set up a profile in my DX8 that I use specifically for Liftoff. I have triple rates (100/70/50%) set on individual switches for pitch, roll, and yaw. This allows me to have coarse on-the-fly tuning options when I'm trying out a new quad or a new track in the sim. In some cases the rate switches are close enough that no tuning within the sim is necessary.

Final Thoughts

FPV quad racing requires a unique set of skills. My previous RC piloting and simulator experience left me ill-prepared for the demands of zooming though gates at top speed. I shudder to think what kind of mayhem I would have caused by learning the ropes with my tangible racing quads. The hours I've spent on Liftoff have made me much better prepared to hit the track this spring.

I've still got plenty to learn. Without Liftoff, however, my path to this point would have surely been paved with broken parts and frustration. So I'm sure that I will continue to use Liftoff even as my skills improve further. Considering the investment required to configure a racing quad, it seems silly to not spend another $20 on such a useful training tool.

Terry is a freelance writer living in Buffalo, NY. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.