A few years back, if you wanted a decent quadcopter, you had to build it. These days, there are dozens of companies producing easy-to-fly, affordable models. But this hasn’t stopped many people from taking the DIY approach.
In my opinion, there’s no better time to learn how to build a drone than today. Drone parts are becoming incredibly cost-efficient, and there are loads of tutorials (including this one) online about what steps to take.
The Benefits to Learning How to Build a Drone
The main benefit to taking the DIY route with regards to your drone is that you’ll learn so much about how quadcopters work.
By getting your hands dirty, you’ll develop a deeper understanding of how your UAV operates “under the hood”.
Also, making your own drone is a popular choice in the drone racing community. In this article, we’ll walk you through the 6 steps of building a quadcopter.
This is for a battery-powered drone build. Gasoline-powered drones are much more complicated to build, so I’ll save them for a future article. If you have any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments section below.
How Much And How Long?
So, how long does it take to build a quadcopter? And how much will it cost? Honestly, it depends. I’d say that, on average, expect to spend about $300 for the parts and about 10 hours in labor.
Obviously, the more complex your design, the longer it’s going to take and the more it’s going to cost. These are just rough estimates of what to expect.
Step 1: Choosing Your Frame
All quadcopter DIY projects start with choosing the right frame. Well technically there’s no “right” frame. It just depends on your needs.
In general, there are four different frame types to choose from:
This is by far the most common type of UAV frame out there. It’s made up of four arms with one motor per arm.If you’re totally new to building quadcopters, I highly recommend choosing this frame type.
Although not as common as quadcopter frames, tripcopter frames are another option when learning how to build a drone.
They have three arms with one motor each. While less versatile, they are cheaper to build than the other frame types.
With this frame type, you have six arms with one motor each. Now we’re talking about some serious power! But as you can imagine, more power is going to require a bigger investment.
Finally, there’s the octocoper frame. It has eight arms with one motor each.
Similar to the hexactoper, these UAVs offer a lot of power, which is great if you’re building a surveillance drone (which requires a lot of stability and flight time). But again, expect to pay big bucks and a lot of time to build one.
For this guide, I’m going to assume that you’ve chosen the quadcopter frame. It’s the easiest to build if you’re completely new to quadcopters.
The RipaFire F450 4-Axis Multi-Rotor Quadcopter Flame is a good frame to use. Once you’ve chosen a frame, it’s time to move on to step two.
Step 2: Mounting the Motors
The next step in learning how to build a drone is to mount the motors. The motor is arguably the most important component of a quadcopter (well technically they’re ALL important, but you know what I mean).
It’s what allows the drone to take off in the first place. And for this reason, you need to choose the right type of motor. In general, there are two types of motors to choose from:
What’s the difference between the two? That’s what we’ll talk about now.
Brushed motors contain magnets and windings (like all RC motors). With this RC motor, the magnet remains STILL while the windings SPIN. Models like the Cheerson CX-10 or the Syma X5C contain brushed motors.
While they are cheap, they tend to wear out more quickly compared to brushless motors. That’s why I always tell people learning how to build a drone to go with brushless motors. Even though they cost more, you’ll get a better experience.
This motor type is quite different than its counterpart.
It has the coils remained in a FIXED position while the magnets SPIN.
Believe it or not, it’s this type of setup that allows brushless motors to last longer (that and the fact that they don’t contain any brushes).
Again, when making your own quadcopter, brushless motors are the way to go. Don’t go with brushed motors just to save a few dollars. You’ll run into problems later on and wish you had never bought them.
How Do RC Motors Work?
Here’s a handy video that will show you, in pretty good detail, how RC motors work:
Step 3: Soldering the ESC
Each motor will require one electronic speed controller (ESC). The ESC is a very important part of UAV.
It’s sort of the “middle man” between the motors and something called the “Flight Controller” (more on that in a bit).
If you’re confused about what exactly an electronic speed controller is, what it looks like, and how it works, refer to the following video:
Step 4: Setting Up the Power Distribution System
The next step in learning how to build a drone is to setup your power distribution system.
As its name implies, this system “distributes” powers to each of the four motors on your quadcopter.
Remember that each drone comes with only one battery (not four). As a result, you’ll need a way to distribute the battery’s power to all four motors- and that’s exactly what a power distribution board is for.
Step 5: The Flight Controller
The flight controller is an integral part of any quadcopter. It’s essentially the “brains” that tells the UAV what to do.
Flight controllers have a variety of sensors built into them. Each sensor works together to give you a better flying experience. Some of the most common sensors include:
- Compass: Says which direction the drone is traveling.
- Gyroscope: Responsible for detecting angular changes.
- Accelerometer: Detects liner acceleration on up to three axes.
- Inertia Measurement Unit (IMU): Contains the accelerometer and gyroscope.
- Barometers: Detects changes in height.
- GPS: Determines the coordinates of the drone.
When learning how to build a drone, memorize the names and functions of these sensors.
You’ll be seeing them a lot, especially if you’re planning on getting into drone racing or making drones a regular hobby.
The more sensors you have, the better your flying experience is going to be. Just know that the more sensors you have, the more the flight controller is going to cost.
Step 6: Putting it All Together
I wouldn’t consider myself an “expert” at building drones. While I’ve built a handful of really good ones, there are people out there way more experienced than myself.
Note, I recommend investing in a quality cordless screwdriver as it will make your job a lot easier.
Like many of you, I’m still learning. To help you get started, I found some really good videos that will walk you through the steps listed above:
Terms to Know
Like all industries and hobbies, drones have their own lingo that you should familiarize yourself with.
Knowing this lingo will not only make you seem more experienced, but it will also come in handy when learning how to build a drone. Here are the terms to know:
- Drone: Means the same thing as “UAV” or “quadcopter”. You’ll find these three terms used interchangeably in the drone community.
- Flight Controller: The “brains” of a drone. Contains a variety of sensors that tells the drone where it’s at in the air.
- Prop Guards: The things that help protect the propellers on a drone. Highly recommended for beginners who are expected to crash a lot.
- Shell: A lot of people refer to the drone’s body (a.k.a. “outer cover”) as a “shell”. The drone’s shell, or outer cover, can be made from a variety of materials.
- Accelerometer: Measures liner acceleration.
- Barometer: Let’s the drone know how high above the ground it’s currently flying.
- Gyroscope: A sensor that measures angular acceleration on up to three axes.
- RTF: If you see the letters “RTF” on the box of a drone, it means that the drone comes fully assembled and ready-to-fly straight out the box.
- BNF: This acronym stands for “Bind-and-Fly”. It describes an RC drone that comes fully assembled but without the transmitter (you’ll need to provide one separately).
- Quadcopter: A UAV with four arms and one motor per arm.
- Hexacopter: A UAV with six motors and one motor per arm.
- Octocopter: A UAV with eight motors and one motor per arm.
- Tricopter: A UAV with three motors and one motor per arm.
- ESC: The acronym for “Electronic Speed Controller”. As we mentioned earlier, this is the “middle man” between the flight controller and the motors.
- Power Distribution: Remember that every drone comes with only one battery. For this reason, a power distribution system is needed to “share” the battery power among all of the motors.
- Li-Po: Short for “Lithium Polymer”, which is the battery type used in RC drones almost universally. That’s because they’re capable of releasing a lot of current despite being so lightweight compared to other batteries.
- FPV: The acronym for “First Person Viewing”. FPV flying is when you’re able to see what the drone’s camera is seeing in real time. It’s a lot of fun and highly recommended for any experience level!
- Gimbal: The thing that holds that camera on certain drones. It’s what helps you achieve more stable footage while in the air. Not all camera drones have gimbals though.
For learning how to build a drone, this is some useful lingo to know. Memorize these terms and they’ll not only help you seem more experienced in front of other flyers, but also help you when constructing your quadcopter.
All About Propellers
We’ll end this guide on how to build a drone by talking about propellers.
I briefly want to talk about what they are and the different types you’ll encounter. The first thing to know is that these are NOT helicopter blades.
Those are different. Most RC quadcopters come with two-bladed (more common) or three-bladed propellers (less common). The propellers can be made from many different materials, which we’ll discuss now.
If you buy a RTF drone, it will most likely have plastic propellers. That’s because plastic props are cheap.
Typically, when people take the DIY approach, they’re more keen on carbon fiber props since they’re more durable.
The great benefit to plastic props is that you can break them without having to worry about losing out on a huge investment. If you’re strapped for cash, plastic propellers might be the way to go in your quadcopter DIY project.
Most people don’t think that using wooden propellers is possible when making your own drone.
But you might be surprised to hear that it is possible to use them in your DIY build. No, it’s not common. Still, I’ve seen people use them, and they do cost more than plastic.
While I’ve never personally used wooden props, I’ve heard that flyers use them since they are very durable and don’t bend.
Wooden propellers aren’t that common in the drone industry. You’re more likely to see these on RC planes.
If you’ve got the extra crash, consider investing in some carbon fiber propellers. These are the real deal as far as durability is concerned. They are extra-tough, and will do a good job at not breaking upon impact.
In nearly all of my drone DIY projects that I’ve done in the past, I almost exclusively used carbon fiber propellers. They are difficult to break and are still very lightweight.
If you don’t have the extra money, plastic propellers should suffice (just make sure to buy extra since those are more likely to break compared to carbon fiber props).
How to Build a Drone – Bottom Line
This isn’t an extensive or complete guide by any means. I simply wanted to provide you with a rough overview of how to build a drone. Be sure to bookmark this page so that you can refer to it from time to time.
If you have any questions, leave it in the comments section below. I or another reader may be able to answer it. As always, thanks for reading. Good luck and fly safe.