Building your own drone is a very exciting process.
With the growth of the drone industry, there’s an incredible selection of parts that you can choose from and it’s easier now than ever to build high quality drones by hand.
However, if you’re building a drone for the very first time, it can be a daunting task.
Not only is there a steep learning curve, but the time it takes from raw parts to your first successful flight can take a really long time if you’re not sure what you’re doing.
Trust me. I’ve been there. I’ve failed on countless drones.
Whether it was because the components didn’t match, not properly soldering wires, or setting the wrong configuration, there are a million ways to mess up when building your own drone.
Which is what inspired me to write this article.
Our goal with this article is to guide you in the right path when building your first drone. Not only will you learn to build your first drone, but you’ll also end up with the knowledge of how drones work and the ability to troubleshoot it when it breaks(trust me, it will break).
Let’s get started.
Should I Build my Own Drone?
Building a drone can be a long, painful process at first and before you take your first step, you should first make sure whether it’s even necessary to go the path of building a drone.
Building a drone takes lots of time and potentially a lot of money. On top of that, there are many exceptional RTF(ready to fly) and BNF(bind n fly) drones in the market already that lets you get started quickly without spending 100s of hours building it.
Here are some reasons to build and not to build a drone.
Reasons Not to Build a Drone
- You’ve never flown a drone before
If you’ve never flown a drone before, building a drone might not be where to start. Like I mentioned earlier, building a drone can be a difficult task, and it might demotivate some people before they’ve even had a chance to fly a drone. For your first flight, I recommend starting with a small, ready-to-fly mini drone. They’re very affordable, have less risk when flying, and you’ll also get a feel of what qualities you’ll need if you decide to build a drone.
Alternatively, you can start try a flight simulator. There are very good ones that cost around $20 and you can also use a gaming controller as well.
- You want to add a drone to your camera list
Whether you’re a seasoned filmmaker or just really appreciate the view from up above, if you’re looking to add a flying camera to your list of camera gear, building a drone might not be the way to go.
There are many amazing drones in the market already, that can capture incredible footage, so there’s honestly no reason to build your own.
Building one can potentially be cheaper, but the risks are much higher, and can even end up costing more when not done properly.
DJI is a really solid choice for this.
If you’re starting out, I recommend the DJI Mini 2.
If you’re a seasoned filmmakers, I recommend either the DJI Mavic 2 Pro or the DJI FPV combo.
- You’re not good at making things
It’s hard to admit, but some people aren’t as crafty with their hands and this is a crucial requirement for building a drone.
One alternative can be to start with a bind n fly, then slowly dive into customizing your parts.
Reasons to build a drone
- You want to customize your own parts
After flying drones for a while, you might start to feel limited by the market and want to start customizing your own drones. You’ll also end up learning about each component and you’ll be able to fix your drone after you crash it (it’s a rite of passage for everyone).
- You want to dive deeper into FPV drone racing and freestyle
Similar to the first point, if you fly FPV freestyle or enter drone racing competitions, sooner or later you’ll start to feel limited by the market.
Building your own drone allows you to pick and choose in order to optimize your drone for your own specific needs.
Type of Drones You Can Build
There are many different types of drones out there, but when it comes to freestyle, racing, and just in general, quadcopter are the most common.
Even within quadcopters, there are several different categories, each with its own distinct characteristics and purpose. Here are the most common types of quadcopter drones that you can build.
5 inch drone
The 5 inch drone is considered the standard for FPV and is the most common type of drone around. The 5 inch refers to the size of the propeller and can be used in both racing and freestyle.
They usually fly about 2-5 minutes and don’t have prop guards, so they’re usually made for outdoor flights. You can also mount an action camera, such as the GoPro, in order to capture the footage in HD or 4K quality.
Mini Drones are slightly smaller than 5 inch drones, with a prop size around 2-4 inches. They’re compact, nimble, and more crash resistant than the 5\” drones.
The Chinewhoop is a class between the mini and 5\” drones, with characteristics of both.
It can carry an HD camera, which micro drones can’t, and has a much more controlled and slow pace flight than a 5” so it’s great for capturing cinematic(thus the name).
These also come with solid prop protection so it can be used indoors as well.
Long Range Drones
Long range drones are built to fly much longer and further, so they tend to have longer propellers for more efficiency (6 inches or longer). With the bigger battery and props, long range drones tend to fly up to 20-40 minutes. They’re not very good for racing or freestyle FPV, but are great for exploring and cinematic footage. Long range drones usually have more advanced builds, so they’re not recommended for first time drone builders.
Parts Required for the drone
Now that you know what type of drone to build, here are the fundamental parts required to build a drone.
Propellers are described by 3 numbers: size x pitch x number of blades.
Once you’ve chosen your drone type, you’ll know what range of prop sizes you need.
|Drone Type||Prop Size|
|Micro Drone||3″ or smaller|
|Mini Drone||2″ ~ 4″|
|5 inch Drone||5″|
|Long Range Drone||6″ or longer|
The frame is the backbone of the drone and this is where you’ll be mounting most of the components. Most quadcopters have an X shaped frame but the size and variant may depend on the drone type you’re trying to build.
The size of the frame is measured by one diagonal and this size depends on the size of the propeller.
|Prop Size||Frame Size|
|3″ or smaller||150mm or smaller|
Choosing your frame will depend mostly on your flying style. For FPV freestyle, you’ll want a tough frame that doesn’t break easily and for racing drones, go with a lightweight frame in order to reduce weight.
FPV Camera System
The FPV camera is the eye of the camera and it’s what you’ll see in your FPV goggles as well. The size and weight of the FPV camera will depend on the type of drone you’ll be building.
|Camera Type||Camera Size|
|Standard full size||28mm|
VTX Video Transmitter
The VTX is responsible for sending the visual footage to your FPV goggles. When choosing a VTX, make sure that it supports the frequency of your system.
There are 3 main frequencies: 1.2GHz, 2.4GHz, 5.8GHz
Lower frequencies can be used in longer ranges and in places with lots of obstacles, but require bigger antennas. Higher frequencies have better picture quality
The antenna is the piece responsible for delivering the video feed to your goggles and what determines the drone’s range. It’s a small piece of the drone, but it’s a pretty important one and choosing one can be quite hard if it’s your first time.
For a quadcopter, you’ll need a set of 4 motors, 2 clockwise and 2 counter-clockwise. You’ll need to choose motors with the right power output for your propellers.
Motors are determined by the propeller size and Power output (kV)
|Frame||Prop Size||Motor Size||kV|
Motors are what allows the drone to fly and move around, so you’ll need your motors to be able to not only hold the drone’s weight, but also provide more thrust to lift it up. For this, you’ll need to look at the thrust to weight ratio. At the bare minimum, you’ll want 2:1 but for best settings, between 4:1 and 8:1.
ESC – dynamic controls for motor
The Electric Speed Controller, ESC is the part that’s responsible for sending flight instructions to the motors while also converting DC current into AC for brushless motors.
Individual ESCs or 4-in-one
When choosing an ESC, you can either get one for each motor or one board that has all 4 ESCs in one. Getting a 4-in-one ESC reduces soldering and wiring complexity, as well as reducing the drone’s weight, since it also acts as the PDB, but when it breaks, you’ll have to replace all 4 as opposed to just one.
PDB – Power Distribution Board
The power distribution board(PDB) is a piece of hardware that supplies power from the battery to the other parts of the drone. When choosing a frame, a dedicated PDB type comes with it as well, but in some cases, you’ll have to choose your own separately.
Drone parts have improved over the years and some parts are created as hybrid pieces of the PDB. Some FC boards also have the PDB built in while other PDB boards come with the VTX installed. In addition, if you use the 4-in-one ESC, you won’t need a PDB board.
FC – Flight Controller
The flight controller is the brain of the drone. This piece of hardware is responsible for giving flight instructions to the motors, measuring flight data, and even have special functions like GPS and return to home functions.
FCs usually come with a gyroscope (orientation) and an accelerometer (measure speed). However, some come with additional features. One of the most common are GPS, which helps to locate your drone, which is a must-have for long range drones that fly beyond line of sight. Another feature is the barometer to read atmospheric pressure, which is a requirement for auto flight (like return to home feature)
The powerhouse of the drone. Drone batteries are usually LIPO batteries – lithium polymer batteries.
When choosing a battery, you want to choose one that:
- Supplies the right current
- Fits on model
- Has the right voltage for your model
- Good balance between capacity and weight.
If you want to capture your flight footage, the FPV camera isn’t enough. It’s made to have low bandwidth, thus having low quality and resolution.
It’s common to have a mount for a High Definition action camera like a GoPro or a 360 camera.
This is the secondary camera that’s used to capture your amazing flight footage. When choosing which HD camera to use, you’ll want a good balance between price, camera quality, weight, and durability.
Remote Control Transmitter
To fly the drone, you’ll need to get a remote control transmitter.
Different models will have different range and some come with additional buttons and features.
Most people that build their own drone will fly FPV and will require FPV goggles.
Different goggles will support different aspect ratios, field of vision, and image resolution.
Lastly, you’ll need a charger for your LIPO batteries. If you have a lot of batteries, we recommend getting a charger that supports many channels and has a strong power output.
Tools Required to build a drone
An absolute necessity when building drones. It’s also good to know the basics and even getting some practice before soldering your drone together.
You’ll end up with a lot of wires when building your drone. Electric tape is a great way to keep them organized and prevent any shorts.
A multimeter is absolutely necessary but can often be overlooked. During the wiring process, you’ll need to use a multimeter to test for shorts and test for connections.
These can be great for people with shaky hands or those that are new to soldering.
Hex Key Drivers
Not a necessity but required for assembling certain frames.
Great to have for minimizing excessive wires on your drone.
Highly recommended for increasing the durability of your drone. You can use a glue gun to add extra protection and strengthening solders, which are often the first to break.
Great do-it-all tool to have in case of emergencies.
Desk Light & Magnifier
Great to have for beginners.
Building the Drone
1. Lay out the parts on the frame
Before you start soldering and screwing things in, an important first step is to see how it’ll all fit. Some frames come disassembled, so first put the frame together. Lay out the motor, FPV camera, antenna, and hardware components on top of it, in the appropriate area where it should be placed. Each build is different so even if you’ve seen other builds, it’s a good practice to follow.
Once you’ve laid out the parts and have a good idea of where each part should go, you’re ready to move onto the next step.
2. Mount the Motors and solder the ESC
Once you’re ready to start, mount the motors onto each leg.
Some motors have a fixed direction, so you’ll want to place them carefully using this format
(pic of motor direction)
Once you have the motors set, solder each of them to an ESC. If you’re using a 4-in-one ESC, you can skip this step.
3. Mount and Connect the PDB
Now you’ll be mounting your first piece of hardware.
We recommend placing the PDB before the FC since it’s simpler and you can connect the camera systems later.
Mount the PDB onto the center of the drone. Make sure to add a washer to add space between the PDB and the frame to avoid shorting. Once mounted, solder the ESC onto the PDB.
If you’re using a 4-in-one ESC, this takes the place of the PDB, so you’ll be connecting that to the motors. Make sure to solder to the right parts.
Once your solders are done, we recommend using a glue gun to protect the solders.
4. Multimeter Test
Before continuing to add to the build, you’ll want to make sure that everything you have now is wired correctly.
Here are some common mistakes when building a drone
- Bad solder joints
- Soldering to a higher voltage pin
- Soldering components backwards
- Soldering component to the wrong location
By performing a multimeter test, you’ll be able to identify these mistakes. Also since it’s still early on in the construction process, you’ll learn not to make the same mistakes later in the process.
WARNING: if you connect battery without performing any tests and there was a problem, it’ll start smoking (often called “magic smoke”) and your PDB will not be usable.
With the multimeter, one of the most fundamental tests is the continuity test. The continuity test basically checks if there’s a direct electrical connection, with weak resistance, between the two ends, which is also known as a short circuit. If there is a short occurring, the multimeter will make a noise.
With the multimeter, first check the two battery ports to see if there’s a short occurring in the entire system. Then check the individual ESCs and motors.
If there seems to be a problem, check to see if your signal wires are connected. At this stage, we’ve only wired up the power wires so your signal wires shouldn’t be connected to anything yet.
If you think a piece is damaged, check to see if the multimeter’s volt, current, and resistance reading are similar to the component’s specs
5. Attaching the Flight Controller
It’s finally time to attach the heart of the drone: the flight controller.
If you’re uncertain which way the front of the flight controller is, you can plug it into the software and see which way the 3D model moves. The battery port is usually in the back, which can also be another indicator.
Some FC have awkward designs such as having the plug in the front, making it hard to plug in, so if you’d like to change the orientation, you can simply edit that on the software.
Once you know your flight controller’s orientation, stack it on top of your PDB with nylon standoffs to add some space in between. You are now ready to wire your FC.
The FC wires up to pretty much every component on the drone that requires a signal.
If you’re confused on which wires go where, reference the pinout diagram that comes with your flight controller.
List of connections to the flight controller:
NOTE: make sure no wire parts are touching places they’re not supposed to in order to avoid shorting.
FC wiring for beginners.
6. Mount the Visual System
Now it’s time to mount the visual systems, namely the FPV camera and the VTX antenna.
For the camera, most frames usually come with a housing piece for mounting the camera. The FPV camera is usually between 15 to 30 degrees so that you can both see the ground as well as what’s in front of you.
Faster drones usually use steeper angles, so we recommend starting off with 15 degrees and then increasing the angle to find the angle you like.
If you don’t have any tools for measuring the angle, there are protractor apps you can use with your smartphone.
As for the VTX, you have a couple of options for the location. Some people prefer the bottom side of the top frame. Others prefer to place it on the main frame, behind the PDB and FC stack. Some even place it in the front, near the camera. Essentially, you want to place it in a position where it’ll be protected in cases of crash.
You’ll also want to place the VTX in a location that doesn’t shake since vibrations can easily mess up your visual quality.
7. Mounting the Receiver
The final component to attach is the receiver antenna. This piece is saved for last because the placement can vary from drone to drone and it’s location can be quite crucial. You’ll want to place it somewhere that’s both safe and can also ensure a good signal.
Once all the parts are wired, it’s time to set up the firmware for the flight controller.
In this step, you’ll plug in your Flight Controller to your computer to calibrate and select preferred settings for your drone.
WARNING: it’s very important that you don’t have your propeller attached yet. The drone motors will spin in some steps and having blades attached turn your drone into a dangerous weapon.
For the firmware, there are a couple of options to choose from, but BetaFlight is the most common one at the time. It’s open sourced and probably also the most stable option.
Once you have BetaFlight installed, plug in the microUSB to the flight controller and choose the correct port in BetaFlight. Once the FC is connected to BetaFlight, you want to first back up your settings in case you make any mistakes.
9. Attach Propellers
Once the software is ready, it is now time to put on your propellers and take your drone for its first flight.
Make sure to match your propellers with your motor’s orientation. The higher part of the prop is the direction that it spins in.
10. Field Test
It’s finally time for your drone’s first field test!
Make sure that you’re flying in a safe and open environment. Don’t forget to register your drone if it weighs over 0.55lb and check to see if you’re permitted to fly in your area.
Test each and every control to see if your drone acts the way it should. If something feels wrong or out of place, go back to the software configurations step and if your drone doesn’t take off at all, it’s most likely a hardware issue.
Building a drone is a hard and long process, but it can be a great learning experience as well and is highly recommended for those that want to dive deeper into drones and FPV.
Remember that you don’t need to build one to fly and there are plenty of RTF and BNF drones that let you take the air as soon as possible.
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