If you want to learn more about how a quadcopter works, instead of just how to fly it, you might want to learn how to build a quadcopter. Building your own drone requires more work, and more skill, than simply purchasing a ready-made quadcopter. However, it also rewards you with the satisfaction of knowing that the drone you are flying was made with your own hands. Plus, there are many kits and tutorials out there that are targeted toward beginners who either have flown drones but never built them, or those whose first experience ever with a drone is building one.
If you are going to successfully build a quadcopter, there are a few steps you need to follow. You can find more detailed instructions online, but the following steps are the most basic and important. Following them should allow you to put together a serviceable and fun quadcopter, regardless of your experience level.
Choose between an RTF kit, an ARF kit, or a from scratch build.
When you decide to build a quadcopter, you will quickly find that there are many options for putting together a drone. In particular, there are three approaches you can take. Selecting the one that is right for you needs to be your first step, because each approach comes with its own steps for a successful build.
The first, and simplest, approach is to choose an RTF quadcopter kit. These kits come with everything you need to fly the drone right out of the box (frame, controller, motors, transmitter, etc.). If you need anything to put the drone together, it will be tools like screwdrivers, and perhaps some connectors. In some cases, an RTF quadcopter will even already be assembled for you. If you want to actually build a drone, you may want to skip the pre-assembled drones and select an RTF kit that requires some assembly. However, because these kits come with everything you need (and at least some of the assembly done already) they are the easiest drones to put together.
ARF stands for “almost ready to fly” and refer to quadcopter kits that require some more parts to complete the kit. For example, you might need to add a controller, propellers, etc. in order to end up with a working quadcopter. These kits also require more assembly than do RTF quadcopter kits. While these kits offer more of a challenge while you build a drone, they still provide you with many of the parts you need and make it much easier to build a drone than if you constructed it from scratch.
A from-scratch drone build is out of reach for many beginning drone builders. The term refers to purchasing all of your own parts and putting them together yourself. The reason from-scratch builds are more difficult is because they require a deeper knowledge of the intricacies of the quadcopter. For example, in order to build a frame, you need to understand how the frame supports the weight and technology of the drone, and how to construct a frame that can withstand accidents.
In addition, all of the parts of a quadcopter must be compatible with each other. When you purchase a quadcopter kit, all of the pieces within the kit are already compatible, so you just have to worry about putting them together. When you are building from scratch, you have to make sure all the parts you buy are compatible. Despite its difficulty level, however, from scratch quadcopters allow you to incorporate any features you wish into your drone, and generally allow you to build a more sophisticated and advanced piece of machinery than is possible with a kit.
However, many beginners will find this type of from-scratch construction to be overwhelming and difficult. If you are a beginner, you may also want to select an almost-ready-to-fly or ready-to-fly quadcopter kit. These will come with all the pieces you need to put together a simple yet reliable drone, and they should come with the instructions you need to navigate the assembly.
Select a quadcopter to build.
Once you know whether you want to build an all-inclusive quadcopter kit or a more advanced one, you will need to choose the specific drone you will be putting together. One of the great things about building a drone is the fact that the sky is the limit as far as the capabilities you can incorporate into your quadcopter. And, often, you can build these capabilities into your drone for less than you would pay for a similar drone at a store.
However, keep in mind that the more features you include in your drone, the more complex it will be to build, and the more chances there are for you to make mistakes. For beginners to the drone hobby, adding special features can be a little too complicated to be accomplished successfully. For example, putting a frame together from scratch and adding cameras and FPV capabilities are advanced techniques that may require practice first.
As a result, if you are a beginning drone builder, you may want to choose a basic quadcopter to build. This does not mean selecting a boring or cheap drone. Instead, you should be able to find light weight, agile, small, and reliable quadcopters to put together. You can even find acrobatic quadcopters that are still simple to put together for beginners. The key is to locate a quadcopter that will allow you to get into the drone building hobby without feeling overwhelming or complicated.
Once you become more familiar with building a drone, you can add features to the drones you have already built, or gradually select more complicated quadcopters to put together. With time and practice, you may find yourself building functional, complex quadcopters entirely on your own. The key is to start where your ability level is, select a drone that has the features you want but is still manageable for you to build within your current skill level, and then decide what areas you want to challenge yourself in for your next drone build.
Make sure you have all the pieces.
Once you have selected a quadcopter to build, you will need to make sure you have all the pieces necessary to put it together. If you have chosen an RTF quadcopter kit, you might be able to skip this step and go directly to collecting the tools for your build. However, familiarize yourself with your kit first. Even some RTF kits have small parts that might be missing or need to be purchased (such as connectors).
If you have chosen an ARF quadcopter kit, you will need to look at the kit carefully to determine which pieces you need. For example, many ARF kits require you to purchase a controller separately. Make sure that you note not only which pieces are needed but also what requirements they should meet in order to be compatible with the rest of the kit. Otherwise, you might have difficulty building or operating your drone properly.
If you are building your quadcopter from scratch, you will need all of the major pieces listed below, and, possibly, additional items if you choose to add functionality like a camera or FPV. In fact, you will need to purchase every single item for your quadcopter separately. In order to do so successfully, you will need to make sure all of the parts are compatible with each other, and that they provide you with the specific functionality you are looking for in your drone. Consulting an exhaustive online tutorial or video can help you identify parts beyond the major ones listed below that will help you build your ideal quadcopter from scratch.
Following is a basic list of the parts you will have to have regardless of the type of drone you build. Other pieces might be required depending upon the specific drone you construct, but you should be able to find a list of these extra pieces on your tutorial or in the instructions for your kit. The specific types of these parts (for example, the specific type of battery that will work best) will depend upon the quadcopter you are putting together.
- Motors (4)
- Propellers (4)
- Electronic speed controls (4)
- Flight control board
- Radio transmitter and receiver
- Battery and charger
- Connectors and adaptors
- Hex screws
- Propeller spinners
- Propeller bolts
- Selective parts (Camera, FPV, propeller guards, LED lights, etc.)
Select quality parts.
Regardless of whether you purchase your parts separately or buy a quadcopter kit, you need to choose quality parts. For instance, many quadcopter parts come from China, which is known for shipping lower quality pieces simply because these pieces can be made and sent for less. Instead of choosing the least expensive parts, think instead about how strong, durable, easy to use, and well-reviewed they are. You can find solid parts from China, and from other places, but you may have to do your research.
The same applies when you are researching quadcopter kits. Instead of choosing the least expensive kit, consider selecting a kit based on its proven quality and durability. Choose something that not only matches your skill level but that also has reviews that support its claims to being a quality product that will last you for the long term. The result in the end should be a stronger and longer-lasting quadcopter to enjoy.
Following is an overview of some of the other qualities you should look for in each part of your quadcopter. These characteristics will make it easier for you to put together a quadcopter that is easy to use and flies reliably.
While it is possible to build a frame from scratch, it is very difficult to do so. The reason is that the frame requires precise engineering in order to provide stable flight and in order to withstand crashes. With many high quality frames available for purchase, you would be wise to start with a fully constructed frame. Look for one that is light weight and durable. And, because all of your parts are going to be placed in or on the frame, select one that is easy to build on.
- Motors (4)
Consider purchasing a motor that is neither inexpensive or very pricey. Motors in this price range tend to be reliable without costing you lots of money. Typically, a motor that is around 1000kV will suffice. Use the information that comes with the motor to decide what type of propellers and what kind of electronic speed controls (ESCs) you will need.
- Propellers (4)
The motors you purchase should tell you what size and type of propellers will work best with them.
- Control Board
The control board is the brain behind the quadcopter. As such, the type you buy will determine how much functionality and performance your quadcopter has. However, instead of purchasing the most expensive, and complex, control board out there, you should once again try to balance ease of use, cost, and functionality. As a beginning drone builder, you want a board that is easy to install, but also versatile enough to handle modifications you might make to the quadcopter later on. And while spending top dollar on a control board might be tempting, saving some money by purchasing a less expensive board can still leave you with a high quality and reliable part.
- Electronic Speed Controls (4)
Again, the motors you purchase should tell you what type of electronic speed controls to buy.
- Radio transmitter and receiver
Choose a transmitter that has at least 4 channels. If you foresee yourself making modifications on your quadcopter as your skill level increases, select a transmitter that has more than 4 channels so it can handle any changes you make later on.
- Battery and Charger
The power the battery provides is described in a term called mAH. The higher the mAH, the more powerful the battery is. However, the higher the power, the heavier the battery tends to be. So, make sure that you select a battery that your quadcopter can handle, while providing enough power to give you a satisfactory flight.
As far as battery chargers go, choose a balance charger that will charge the cells in your battery at an even rate. The battery charger is also one area where the cost really does matter. Invest in a quality charger in order to reduce the risk of fire caused by poorly charging batteries.
Of course, if you select an RTF or ARF quadcopter kit, many of these parts will have been selected for you already. You can ensure the quality of these parts by buying a highly-rated quadcopter kit that has proven itself through solid reviews to deliver a high quality quadcopter. If you are building a drone from scratch, you will need to individually analyze the quality and suitability of each part.
Collect the tools you will need to build the quadcopter.
Of course, simply collecting the parts of the quadcopter will not be enough to put your drone together. You will also need an assortment of tools and accessories that will allow you to construct the drone correctly. These tools might be things you already have around the house, but you may find that there are certain tools you need to purchase especially for your drone building project. Following is a list of some of the tools you should select for your drone building project:
- Zip ties
- Heavy gauge wire
- Small screwdrivers
- Soldering iron
- Battery strap
- Jumping wires
- Set of Allen keys
- Wire cutters
- Utility knife
- Electrical tape
- Wire strippers
- Wire cutters
- Propeller balance
Mount the Motors
If you select not to build your frame, the first step you will take to build a drone (after choosing your drone and gathering your tools) will be to mount the rotors to the frame. The motors connect to the power distribution board on the frame. This board should have a round location with four holes where the motor will mount.
Mounting the motor typically involves screwing the motors onto the motor mounting plates. To accomplish this step, screw four hex screws through the motor and into the plates in the designated areas. Once you have placed the motors on the mounting plates, you can attach the motor shaft (again using hex screws) and then attach the entire set onto the power distribution board.
In order for the motors to be mounted correctly, you must mount them with the wires facing toward the center of the frame. Remember that this step involves four motors for a quadcopter, so you will need to repeat these steps four times for each quadcopter you build. Once you are finished, each of the four arms of the frame should have a motor mounted to it.
Solder the ESCs to the power distribution board.
Soldering the ESCs means connecting them to the power distribution board through the use of solder (a metal that melts easily when exposed to heat). First you need to determine where each ESC wire goes on the power distribution board. The red wires are soldered to the points on the outside of the power distribution board, while the black wires are soldered to the points on the inside of the power distribution board. Occasionally, you will have three differently-colored wires and three rings labeled A, B, and C. Place the yellow wires at A, the red at B, and the black at C.
Locate the proper point for each of your wires, and then cut them so that they reach to that point and no further. Zip tie your ESC’s to their proper location on the arm of the quadcopter so they do not move while you are soldering them. Next apply your solder to the attachment point on the power distribution board and to the wire which will connect to it. Using your soldering iron, melt the solder on the wire, then place the wire on the attachment point and melt the solder on the attachment point until the wire and the power distribution board are joined.
Check the strength of the solder by tugging on the wire. Once you are satisfied with the quality of the solder, wrap your work in electrical tap in order to prevent short circuits and other electrical problems.
Mount the flight control board to the quadcopter.
As mentioned earlier, the flight control board is the brain of the quadcopter. As a result, getting it installed correctly is essential if you are going to enjoy a properly working drone. You may choose to mount the board in its box in order to prevent damage from static charge. If you select this option, you will need to remove the corners of the box and glue the corners of the flight control board to the box for added stability. Alternatively, you can simply remove the flight control board from the box and mount it to your quadcopter that way.
The process of mounting the flight control board is relatively simple. All you need to do is to super glue it in the center of the power distribution board. Just make sure that the board is facing the correct way, with the buttons on the bottom of the board. Also make sure your glue is strong enough to hold the board securely on the drone, otherwise, you risk losing your drone mid-flight or in a crash that dislodges the board.
Mount the receiver to the quadcopter.
You should have in your possession both a radio transmitter and a receiver. The transmitter will allow you to control the flight of the quadcopter by adjusting its height, direction, tilt, and more. However, in order for the transmitter to work, the quadcopter needs to include a receiver that, as its name suggests, receives the signal from the transmitter. Once you have the motors, ESCs, and control board in place, you will need to secure this receiver to the power distribution board of your quadcopter.
Again, this is a relatively simple step (gluing) that is important to the operation of your quadcopter. The receiver should be positioned wherever you wish on the quadcopter. The only requirement is that the wires from the receiver be able to reach the control board, where you will connect them so they can properly direct the quadcopter in response to your command through the transmitter.
Add the battery.
The battery is the power source for the quadcopter. Without it, your quadcopter will not go anywhere. Fortunately, installing the battery is a relatively simple process. Just make sure you begin with a charged battery so you can test your quadcopter right away to make sure that everything is working correctly. Simply attach the battery to the underside of the quadcopter using Velcro or zip ties. Place it in the front if you are not planning to add a camera later. Otherwise, add it to the back to better distribute the weight. Once your battery is in place, you will be ready to move on to the propellers.
Balance the propellers.
Of course, a quadcopter cannot go anywhere without its propellers, no matter how expertly you have hooked up the motors, ESCs, control board, or receiver. As a result, the next step you need to take is to add the propellers to the quadcopter. In order to allow the propellers to keep the quadcopter upright in the air, they first need to be balanced. This means that you need to make sure that each side of the propeller is equally weighted. Otherwise, one side of the propeller will drop lower than the other, and your quadcopter will be unbalanced in the air.
In order to successfully balance your propellers, you need to use a propeller balance. This tool allows you to lay the propeller between two grooves. You should then see the propeller either lean to one side or the other, if it is unbalanced, or rest equally in the balancer, if it is properly balanced. Many high quality propellers (such as those purchased with the right quadcopter kit) will already be well balanced. However, checking is an important step in making sure that your quadcopter will fly correctly.
If one side or another of the propellers is drooping, you can add some tape to the opposite side. This small bit of weight should be enough to bring the drooping side up. When you have added enough weight to the high side, the propeller’s two sides should sit evenly together in the balance. Then you are ready to mount the propellers to the quadcopter.
Prepare to mount the propellers to the quadcopter.
Once you have ensured that the propellers are properly balanced, you can mount them to the quadcopter. Mounting the propellers is a bit more complicated than simply gluing pieces into place, as you did with the control board and the receiver. Instead, you first need to identify which propellers are which. Every quadcopter possesses two propellers that spin in a clockwise direction and two that spin in a counterclockwise direction. You can tell which is which by looking at the labels on the propeller.
Some have the letters L or R on them, meaning Left and Right. The left-spinning ones are counterclockwise propellers, while the right-spinning ones are clockwise propellers. Others label the clockwise propellers with P, while leaving the counterclockwise propellers unlabeled. Finally, still others label the clockwise propellers with R, while leaving the counterclockwise propellers unlabeled.
Once you have identified which propellers move clockwise and which counterclockwise, you need to determine which end of the propeller they go on. The propellers alternate, beginning with a clockwise propeller in the top left hand corner, and moving clockwise around the quadcopter. You should mount your propellers beginning with the one in the top left hand corner, moving to the one in the top right hand corner, then down to the bottom right, then over to the bottom left.
You should also make sure that the motors are installed correctly and are spinning in the right directions. The movement of the motors should reflect the movement of the propeller which will eventually sit on top of it. If you find that a motor is moving in the wrong direction, you should switch the wires to reverse its direction.
Mount the propellers to the quadcopter.
Once you have identified your propellers, the order in which you need to install them, and the proper operation of the motors, you will be ready for the actual installation. Before you begin the installation, turn off the quadcopter so that nothing is running. Then you will need to select a large threaded bolt and place it on the motor. Screw it onto the motor through the screw holes provided on the bolt and the motor.
Once the bolt is securely in place, screw the propeller onto the bolt. The key is to make the propeller as tight as possible onto the bolt. Then, add the spinner to the top of the propeller. Also tighten this as much as possible to make sure that nothing moves when your quadcopter is flying. Once you have completed this step, you are almost done with your quadcopter. You only have some configuration and syncing to do to get all of the parts of the quadcopter working smoothly together.
Configure the flight control board.
Once your drone build is almost complete, you can take the time to configure the flight control board. This term refers to the process of setting up the board to perform the functions you want it to perform. It also means you must link the flight control board to the controller so they communicate with each other. The exact process of configuration will depend upon the flight controller and the board that you use. You should be able to consult your manual to determine the steps to take to complete this process.
Once you have completed these steps, you should be in a position to begin using your quadcopter. Enjoy the opportunity to learn how to use a quadcopter that you yourself have built. And, over time, as your skill level increases, consider building more complex quadcopters or adding to the one you have already finished.