DIY Quadcopter Guide: What Do You Need?

Personal drones or radio controlled quadcopters have become even more popular over the last couple of years. An enormous range of drone technology has surfaced as technology becomes more mainstream. Quadcopters are all a new breed of radio control fun that are rapidly gaining in popularity and all the recent innovations in the field of small autonomous drones have started using quadcopters. They are all the rage at the moment and the pace at which it’s taking the world by storm, there’s no turning back. Doesn’t matter if it’s simply for fun or for the endless possibilities of aerial photography, it’s becoming more of a fun hobby. For the same reason, the commercial drone market is growing rapidly and the drone technology is advancing exponentially.

Unlike helicopters, they are much more stable, and can lift a bigger load. And now personal drones equipped with high-definition cameras are changing the face of photography. Aerial photography is the main reason why these remote controlled drones have taken charge of the skies. Not only can you take incredible photos while inventing new ways of photography, but also explore endless possibilities to see the world in a way you haven’t seen before. And it’s also a pleasure to see them hovering over the clear blue skies. What’s more interesting is to build one!

Where to Start with a DIY Quadcopter?

diy quadcopter

The thrill of flying a quadcopter, let alone building one, is really exciting. It’s going to be even more to fly a quadcopter that you’ve built all by yourself. By making your own DIY quadcopter, you not only have the freedom of customizing your quadcopter in any way you want, but you also have something that’s truly unique. You can do your own paint job, customize your mounts to fit in a camera for aerial photography, or elevate the power by adding powerful motors – the sky is the limit when you’re building your own quadcopter. But where to begin?

The first thing that comes to mind before purchasing a single material is what do you want to do with it? Do you want to build something that can be fun to fly? Or maybe you want to polish your photography skills? Or a combo of both? Either way, you’d want to understand your needs and skills before proceeding. But first, you’ll want to understand the pros and cons of each multi-rotor craft out there.

Tricopter: This little baby brother of the multi-rotor family is one of the simplest and cheapest to build, and they fly smoother than quads. It’s quite similar to a helicopter except it has three rotor disks. However, when it comes down to performance and efficiency, the motors of a Tricopter take the most strain because of the higher throttle, which leaves it with low flight time and low lift capabilities.

Quadcopter: A quadcopter, on the other hand, is more of a multi-rotor helicopter that is lifted and propelled by four rotors. This is definitely one of the most popular crafts in the multi-rotor family, but is equally challenging to build one and a little more expensive. A quadcopter possesses a unique design that can be comparable to traditional helicopters, but with improved features for stabilization and control. They carry a little extra weight because of the extra rotor, which also gives it a huge boost in lifting capabilities and flight time.

Hexacopter: This remote-controlled quad has six propellers, arranged in a circular pattern above the main body of the hexacopter. The six propellers give this quad more maneuverability and flying power than a quadcopter. It can fly steadily and is capable of reaching higher altitudes, which eventually means more lifting power. But it’s equally difficult and more expensive to build one and it also takes a little more ground prep time than the other members of the multi-rotor family. This craft can fly much faster than a quadcopter and effectively.

Octocopter: This monster is specially designed for high-level aerial photography and cinematography. This is the big brother of all, thanks to its eight brushless motors. The vibration is significantly lower with less than eight rotors, which keep the drone optimally balanced. It’s capable of lifting the heaviest load for maximum payload and can fly up to a maximum of 40 minutes. The large range of an Octocopter allows camera operators on the ground to shoot inaccessible terrains. The same goes for filming and photo shoots in urban environments.

For someone who’s new to the quadcopters flying hobby, putting together your first quadcopter can be extremely daunting. From figuring out what to buy to what parts will work together, building your first quadcopter is easier said than done, especially for the ones who don’t come from a background of radio controlled drones or helicopters. Of course, you’ll find thousands of websites and forums packed with all kinds of information on how to build a quadcopter from scratch. But the real problem is from where to start. It can be frustrating trying to figure out what to do and what exactly you need to build your first quadcopter.

What Parts Are Needed?

This guide will take you from figuring out a complete list of specific parts to building and learning to fly a quadcopter in no time. The main purpose is to provide you with a general overview of the basic parts required to build a quadcopter at home. However, compatibility is more important so make sure you get all the pieces that work well with each other. We’ve listed some essential components that you’re going to need for building your first quadcopter.

Frame

diy quadcopter

A frame is the large structure that holds all the essential components together along with other features. Basic things to consider here are weight, size, and materials. It needs to be designed to be strong and durable but also lightweight. The frame is the most prominent feature to consider when learning to build your own DIY quadcopter and it should come with a base in the middle with four protruding limbs coming out to create a square-shaped design.

Motors

diy quadcopter

Next comes the motors. You’ll need to have four motors for your little science experiment. Knowing the weight of your multi-rotor is the very first thing you need to know before proceeding further. Estimating the exact weight can be difficult, especially if you’re planning to build a quadcopter from scratch. Then, you have to work out on the thrust required to lift the quadcopter. A general rule you should be able to put twice as much thrust than the weight itself. In simple terms, your quadcopter should be able to hover at just over half throttle. It helps control your quad in wind and aggressive flight maneuvers. There are tons of motors available on the market suitable for quadcopter.

Propellers

diy quadcopter

A quadcopter uses two clockwise and two counter-clockwise propellers. They come in a variety of diameter and pitches as well as incorporate different materials such as plastic, carbon fiber, and wood. Carbon fiber and plastic are the most popular. Propellers under 8 inches are generally used for racing and acrobatics along with smaller motors. While larger propellers are used for carrying payloads such as video equipment. In general, increased propeller pitch and length draw more current. In simple terms, pitch refers to the traveling distance of one single propeller rotation. So, higher pitch means slower rotation, which eventually creates more turbulence during flight. For this reason, larger propellers with lower pitch are ideal for aerial photography and videography.

Electronic Speed Controllers

diy quadcopterElectronic Speed Controls, or ESCs, are specifically designed to tell the motors how fast they’re actually supposed to spin at any given time. You’ll need four ESCs for your DIY quadcopter build, one connected to each motor. The ESCs can connect either directly to the battery or to a power distribution board but they must be installed properly. Many ESCs come with a built-in battery eliminator circuit (BEC), which power things like flight control and radio receiver without having to connect them directly to the battery.

The ESC generates three high-frequency signals with different but controllable phases to keep the motor running. The frequency of the signal varies a lot, but for a quadcopter, it would be wise to have a controller that supports high enough frequency signal for optimal stability during flights. It’s best to find controllers that operate at 25 Amps or higher so that they can take in the energy currents generated by the battery.

Flight Controller

diy quadcopter

It’s the critical part of your DIY quadcopter build as it holds the sensors that determine how fast the motors are going to spin. You can say, a flight controller is the “brain” of the quadcopter. They vary differently from simple to highly complex. For a starter, you’d want a flight controller that is affordable, easy to install and has strong functionalities. It should be able to handle just any type of multi-rotor craft so if you want to upgrade later to a hexacopter or an Octocopter for that matter, you can do so without purchasing another board. The most elaborate flight controller will give you more control features but will cost more money.

Radio Transmitter and Receiver

diy quadcopter

A radio transmitter and a receiver help you control the quadcopter. You’ll need an RC radio transmitter that is capable of at least 6 channels, channel reversing and adjustable channel endpoints. The number of channels determines how many individual actions on the quad can be controlled. A minimum of four channels is required to control a quadcopter, and if there are additional channels on a transmitter, they are normally used as AUX channels for switches. The receiver, on the other hand, is quite simple to choose. The receiver must be able to bind to your transmitter. If you’re unsure about how to choose the right one, many manufacturers sell the combo of both. Again for the receiver, the more the better.

Power Distribution Board

diy quadcopter

It’s often overlooked when it comes to building a drone, mainly because it’s fairly simple to choose one but despite this, a power distribution board is a crucial part of your quadcopter build. If you don’t choose the right one you’d probably end up losing your drone. About PDB, they distribute power on your quadcopter and provide a neat way of connecting your battery to all of your ESCs. Some multi-rotor frames have power distribution board integrated into the frame itself, making it easy to solder the battery and ESC connectors directly onto the main frame of your quadcopter. In simple terms, a PDB is just a simple basic circuit that connects all the ground connectors to one another.

Battery

diy quadcopter

As far as the power source of the craft is concerned, they typically use LiPo batteries which come in a variety of sizes and configurations, plus they are extremely light. You’ll need a 3-4 lithium polymer (LiPo) battery pack in the capacity range of 2000-4000 mAh. The higher the battery capacity, the longer the flight time. LiPo batteries also have a C rating, which refers to the rate at which power can be drawn from the battery. Larger batteries weight more so there’s always a trade-off between total weight and the flight time. NiMH is also a better alternative, but it’s a lot heavier than LiPo batteries.

Battery Charger

diy quadcopter

Charging a LiPo battery pack can be complex at times, because there are usually multiple cells within the pack that must be charged and discharged simultaneously. So they need a special kind of charger that balances all of the cells while charging. This is where a LiPo battery charger comes in; it’s an important piece of equipment that should not be overlooked. There are also hundreds of chargers available on the market, so you have to choose wisely. The main difference is that good chargers charge faster, and usually tend to have more charging options. Remember, some chargers will require an external power supply for input.

So, you’ve learned about the basic terminologies and purchased all the essential components – motors, propellers, batteries, and electronic speed controllers. But, none of this can work without the flight controller, because it’s the “brains” of the operation. It’s a critical component that holds all the components together such as the microprocessors, input/output pins, and sensors.

Sensors

diy quadcopter

Flight controllers can have several different sensors built into them which are designed to enhance the performance of your quadcopter and bring more features. These sensors gather information about the craft’s speed, height, direction, and much more. Let’s take a look at a few sensors that are used commonly in the modern-day quadcopters, but not necessarily.

Gyroscope: A gyroscope detects angular changes around the three axes of space in degrees (alpha, beta, and gamma). But the problem is a gyroscope alone gives an angular rate, not an absolute measure.

Accelerometer: It measures liner acceleration on up to three axes (X, Y, and Z). It keeps the RC drone stable during flight.

Compass: As you can probably guess, it takes readings regarding the quadcopter’s direction.

Barometer: This measures atmospheric pressure and humidity to work out the altitude. This comes in handy when you fly at higher altitudes. When the drone touches the ground, this sensor becomes ineffective.

GPS: As the name suggests, it helps in determining the geographical coordinates of the drone. It can also be used to calculate speed and path of the drone. This comes in handy in case of autonomous quadcopters that needs to know its exact location and which way to go.

So, as you can possibly take a guess, the more sensors you use, the more expensive the flight controller gets. If, after buying all the necessary parts for your little quadcopter, you’re still not broke, you might consider using these additional sensors in your project.

Putting it All Together

diy quadcopter

Now that you completely understand all the underlying theory on how to build your own quadcopter from the scratch, it’s time to put it all together. Of course, it takes some time and effort building something from a scratch. You can always go for a pre-installed kit, if the budget doesn’t concern you. You could get it assembled in no time. But hey, you’re missing the fun part, right? From choosing each and every part, designing the circuits, determining the factors, to programming, you don’t want to miss any of it. You definitely want to be a part of every aspect of building a quadcopter, and putting all the components together for the final piece, that’s FUN!

If you already have some electronics skills of your own, feel free to experiment. You can always find tools for your little science experiment but there are never enough tools for everyone so bringing your own mind to action can help streamline the process. Hopefully, the post has given you a better understanding of what each part of a quadcopter does, and how to choose the right equipment for your DIY quadcopter build. The overall process will clearly vary based on the different parts you’d want to incorporate into your design, but when done properly, you’ll have a great and functional quadcopter of your own that will be really fun to fly around.