In the first article chapter I will discuss different drone parts needed to get your DIY drone off the ground. This does not include accessories such as parts needed for FPV flying or telemetry. I will also name the best bang for buck products to help you pick the best one for you. Personally when I started I didn´t find many recommendations so I feel like this is needed.
In my opinion a radio controller is the first thing you should pick out. Reason for this is that it is a completely stand alone component and also an investment. This is a one time buy and if in future you wish to build a second drone then you can still use your existing radio controller by simply purchasing another receiver. Also you can then remove the cost of the controller from your second drone build which will make it a lot more cheaper compared to ready made products.
Radio controller is basically the thing you control your drone with. It has joysticks and different knobs, all of which have their own purpose. These radios also have different amount of channels. Channels are basically the different programmable keys on your radio. For example, an 8 channel compared to 6 channel radio has 2 more channels that can be set for either controlling your camera gimbal or flying auto home etc. That is why you will also notice more knobs and such on radios with more channels because each knob has its own channel you can set a certain function to. For those interested in aerial photography I recommend 8 channels. This way you have enough channels for everything. Oh and go with a Mode 2 type Radio. Mode 2 means that the throttle and rudder stick is on the left. Throttle sticks don’t have a spring on them so it doesn’t go back to 0 once you release. Mode 2 is the best type for drone flying.
FrSky Taranis X9D
The best bang for buck radio controller by far is the FrSky Taranis X9D. This radio is super high quality and costs $200. When I say that it is high quality im talking it is as good as radios in the $400+ range so you are getting a lot for $200. Also why I recommend this radio is because it has a built-in telemetery system. What this means is that you can monitor the battery life of your drone straight from your radios screen. This makes flying much much simpler. Also open-source is HUGE in the RC industry. This radios software is completely open sourced and there is a huge selection of different settings etc to choose from. Another bonus is that FrSky is a company that is known for their great quality and reliable transmitter systems. Most cheaper radios are recommended to still use a FrSky transmitter module so with the Taranis you will already have all of that built-in.
If you are googling around you will probably also notice a cheaper radio called the FlySky/Turnigy 9X or 9XR. You can get those for probably around $60. Here is the catcher however, in order to properly use this radio you are going to need to do some modifications to it which will not end up being cheap.
- The original software on it is crap.
- There is no telemetry so you will have to guess how low your drones battery is.
- Flying range is low and not as reliable as FrSky.
- Does not come with a battery or back-light
So if you want the radio to be good, then firstly you can purchase a special board called the “Smartieboard” which is placed inside your radio. This enables features such as connecting the radio to your laptop and uploading a new open source software. This will also enable telemetry HOWEVER you will need to purchase a FrSky telemetry module for that. All of this in total will cost you $60+$52+$69+$15=$196 (radio + module with receiver + smartieboard + battery). Plus I havent added in shipping costs so it will end up costing more than a Taranis X9D. This is why I recommend saving up for a Taranis right away.
Personally I have both the FlySky 9X and Taranis radio and I too went through all of the FlySky 9X modifications. You might think that you are not going to need all of the features they bring but around 1 week in you will notice that you do. Being able to see your drones battery level straight on your radio makes your life so much easier and you will start to want it. If I was to start again I would purchase the Taranis straight away.
Next up is the flight controller. Basically this is the brain of your drone. Every command you give with your radio controller the brain will execute. The flight controller things are a little more complicated.
Firstly you need to decide the purpose of your drone. Is it for racing or taking videos and photos. Once you have figured that out it is time for budget. The price range here is crazy high. We are talking from $20 to $3000. Obviously the $3000 controllers are professional grade for serious video companies but you get the idea.
A really good flight controller for shooting videos will end up costing around $200-$300 with GPS etc included. Main difference between racing and videography flight controllers is exactly the addons. Most racing controllers don’t have a GPS because there is no need for them. Also videography flight controllers need more stability which is why they have better barometers and such built in.
DJI Naza-M V2
DJI Naza-M V2 is for example one of the most reliable flight controllers available. It is specifically meant for drones that are used for shooting videos. It is very stable product and the software support is also super. Perhaps only negative part about it is that even for the $300 price tag Naza doesn’t have a follow-me or pathway feature. You would need to purchase iPad Ground Station to pre-set waypoints.
For the $300 you will get the Naza-M V2 flight controller and GPS.
3DR Pixhawk is perhaps the most complete flight controller available for videographers. It is a fully open source project that also has open sourced software. Configuring this flight controller is much more complex than the DJI Naza-M V2 but it does also come with more features. For example you can set waypoints on your android smartphone or tablet. This does require en external radio set but it costs much less than for DJI. Also the radio add-on shows info such as speed, battery life and allows tuning settings straight from your tablet.
The cost of this is $200 for Pixhawk and $90 for GPS. You are going to need the GPS module to gain full autonomity and enable GPS altitude mode. What that does is make your drone much more stable and stay in one place.
Acro Naze32 & KK 2.1
Acro Naze32 and KK 2.1 flight controllers are made for racing. Difference between racing and video flight controllers is that racing ones are much more straight forward. You can’t expect stuff such as GPS mode flying or crazy hovering stability. They are meant to make your drone fly fast and give you full control of your aircraft. The software on them is also much more complicated as it lets you change even the smallest settings.
KK 2.1 is more recommended for beginners. It is much simpler to configure than the Naze32. However Naze32 is more stable and allows more configuring. So one you have outgrown the KK 2.1, it might be a good idea to switch to Naze32.
KK 2.1 flight controller costs $30 and Naze32 $50.
Now it is time to pick a frame. Here we have a huge selection to choose from. You can simply type “quadcopter frame” into aliexpress and you will find plenty of options.
One of the most popular options for beginners is the DJI 450 flamewheel. Forget getting the original unless you are getting a good deal. There are plenty of cheaper clones out there and they are just as good if not better. 450 means the distance between motors diagonally (as in 450mm). This frame is big enough to lift a smaller action camera such as a GoPro comfortably.
This is where you need to think what you need your drone for. The more weight you wish to lift the bigger frame you are going to need. In order to lift a DSLR camera you are looking in the 680 to 1000mm frames. For racing you 250 frames are the most popular. But for beginners I would either go with a 250 or 450 frame.
A decent frame will cost you anywhere between $15 to $150.
Motors & ESC
Now before you choose motors you will need to have figured out the total weight of your drone. Including the weight you are planning to attach to it (cameras, gimbals etc). Once you have that calculate you can start choosing motors.
It is general knowledge that in order for your drone to lift off, the trust of motors has to be AT LEAST 2x higher than the weight of a drone. It is actually recommended 3x higher for most economical flight time. Good motors always have a data sheet available where you can check the thrust of a motor. They also point out the max amperage it will draw and always what voltage battery and size of propeller is used. This will also help you choose the correct ESC and propeller size for you.
A good budget motor for 450 sized quadcopters is Sunnysky X2212 with a KV980. I have personally used them and they are great. They have low vibration, great bearings and reliable. You can get them for $15 each. Be aware of clones though, if you buy them then only original Sunnysky. The clones have cheap bearings and really suck.
If you have more money and are looking for quality then check out T-MOTOR. They have the best quality motors available but also cost 2x more.
Oh yeah about the KV figure. KV is a bit complicated to explain, basically it refers to revolutions per minute when 1V (volt) is applied. Easiest way to put it: lower KV figure, more torque. So the lighter your craft the higher the KV figure.
Also one more thing, do not choose a motor that is too powerful for your drone. If you have too much thrust then your drone will go flying and you will have real problem controlling it and you will most definitely end up crashing.
Once you have your motors picked out and you know the max amperage, it is time to pick out ESC. ESC are electronic speed controllers. They control the speed of your motors. So when you move that throttle down on your radio controller, ESCs make your motors slow down. When picking ESCs go with some room for error. For example if your motor pulls 19A then go with 30A ESC instead of 20A. DJI has some pretty good and smart ESCs. They also come in nice modular packaging so they barely require any soldering. If you wish to go with any other then make sure you choose an ESC with SimonK software on them. SimonK is made specifically for quadcopters. ESC will cost you around $20 but you will need as many ESCs as you have motors.
If you are planning on purchasing a DJI Naza-M V2 flight controller then you might want to purchase DJI E310 tuned propulsion system. This includes 4 DJI motors, 4 smart ESCs, 9450 propellers and led lights for $160. This is a pretty good set to get started fast. It is perfect for drones weighing in the 800-1300g area.
I have noticed that most sources recommend getting the largest propeller you can fit on your frame. Personally I disagree with that. Get the propeller that your motors datasheet recommends and try with that. If your drone feels heavy and starts hovering at high throttle position only then switch to bigger propellers.
For a quadcopter you are going to need 2CW (clock wise) and 2CCW (counter clock wise) propellers. So 4 in total. Buy cheap plastic propellers at first, such as Gemfan. You are going to crash your drone and you are going to break propellers, this is normal. Once you can comfortably fly and don’t crash anymore you can get more expensive propellers made out of carbon fiber. These Gemfans will cost you $2 for 4 so for $4 you will get 4CW and 4CCW propellers.
Also with propellers you will notice a number at the front: “9450”, “1045”, etc. Lets take 9450, first 2 digits mean the full length of the propeller. As in our case 9.4 inches. The last 2 digits stand for the pitch as in 5 inches. Generally
Graupner E-Propellers are highest quality and most recommended. They are made out of carbon fiber and cost around $15 each. Main advantage of them is that carbon fiber propellers have less vibration than plastic ones.
And to power all of that electonics we need a LiPo battery. On batteries you will notice 3 figures: S, mAh and C.
First of all S means the amount of cells. For example 3S has 3 cells. Each cell is 3.7 voltage average so a 3S battery is 11.1 voltage and fully charged at 12.6V. This figure has to be picked based on the motor you have chosen. On your motors datasheet it will say which voltage battery it works with. Choosing a battery with too high voltage will burn your motor.
Second is mAh which stands for capacity. Capacity basically means how much juice you have in your battery. Generally the higher capacity the higher your flight time. However higher capacity also means more weight to your battery so it is important to find the most economical solution. For beginners making a 450 drone I would recommend starting with a 3S 3000mAh 30C (maybe 20C depending on ur motors) LiPo. This will give you plenty of time to practice with. Once you are ready to fly with a camera and longer distances I would switch to 5000mAh.
Third is C figure which means discharge. This is the max amperage your drone can draw from your battery. Your battery has to be able to provide more amperage than your motors can pull. Here is an example: we have a 3S 5000mAh 20C LiPo battery. In order to calculate the max amperage we have to multiply the 20C with 5000 and we get 20×5000 = 100000mAh or 100Alix. As in the total amperage your motors draw has to be less than 100A. So the lower your capacity is the higher discharge rate you might need.
A 3S LiPo battery will cost you in the $13 to $22 price range so it is MUCH cheaper than having to purchase a new $100 DJI battery for a Phantom series drone.
If im honest then this part was my biggest headache by far. A good bang for buck charger is iMAX B6. It has a charging power of 50W which transfers to max charge of 5A. This is max for charging a 3S 5000mAh LiPo as LiPos are charged with 1C as in 5000×1 = 5A. Never go above because it might damage your battery. This is a good beginners charger for 3S batteries and charges them fairly fast. Once you start using 4S and higher capacity batteries you might need to upgrade to more powerful chargers. iMAX B6 charger costs $43.
Connectors & Other
Okay we are almost finished. I have named all of the components needed to get your drone flying. But you are going to need to connect those components and sadly not all come with same connectors. You are going to need to purchase connectors such as XT60 (max amperage 60), 3.5mm bullets, wire and shrink tubing. You might also need a power distribution board, depending if your frame has 1 built in. The 450 does.
Basically what I’m trying to say is, you can make your drone so all components have their own connectors so if say a ESC should fail, you can easily swap it out without having to desolder everything. Oh and one more thing, you are going to need to solder and you will need to do it A LOT. So practice and learn it.