Building a drone can seem like a daunting task, especially for those without much technical aptitude. Throughout this article though, we’ll show that building a drone can not only save you a lot of money over buying a complete unit but is also relatively simple. Reasonably priced kits are available for those who are less confident in their DIY skills while tinkerers who are more confident when it comes to how to build a drone can save big money by designs and building a unit from parts.
Whether you’re an experienced flyer looking to add a more powerful unit to your fleet or a newbie looking to get into drones, it’s useful to understand how to build a drone. Even if you have no real plan to build a complete unit, knowing how to build a drone could save you hundreds of dollars on repairs if the unexpected happens on a flight. Flying drones can be a fun, and affordable way to experience the excitement of aviation and building your own drone can make the experience that much sweeter.
Should You Build Or Buy?
If you’re new to drone aviation, you’ll probably consider owning a drone. That’s when the inevitable question arises of should you buy a ready to fly (RTF) drone, build one from scratch, or something in between. If you’re looking at high-performance drones, then you may be able to save serious money by building your own, but there are also benefits to buying.
Pluses For Buying
In today’s robust drone market you can get excellent RTF options for very low prices. If your main objective when looking at a drone is simply to gain some flying experience, shoot some high-quality video, and have some fun with friends, then it could be worth buying. Retailers like Amazon.com offer drones in such a vast range of prices ranges and with so many features that there is truly something for everyone out there. If you don’t plan on racing or shooting professional video, it may even cost you less to purchase an RTF kit.
While the building process can be relatively simple these days, you should not plan to rush it. Depending on your design and materials, constructing a drone from scratch could be quite time-consuming. For the right person, it’s a dream project. For the wrong person, however, the building process can be a huge time drain loaded with frustration. If you’re a DIY fan who loves to take on projects that can last for weeks or months, then it’s worth building. If not, then look closely at some various affordable and high-performance options that are available on the web.
When DIY Is For You
If you love to tinker, design, invent, or even just make a mess, then building a drone is for you. There are several big benefits to building from scratch or constructing from a barebones kit. The first big benefit is customization. When you build a drone from scratch, your design is only limited by your imagination and gravity. Want to try a 12-rotor cargo drone? Sure, why not? How about an ultra-light cross-wing speedster? That’s possible. When you build from scratch, you not only end up with all the features you’re dreaming of on your drone, but you’ll also save money on the features you’ll never use.
Building your own drone can also save you money. We’ll stop short of saying it’s a definite money-saver though because that depends largely on the type of drone you plan to build. If you simply want something small and light with few features and not much power, you’ll almost definitely save money looking for an inexpensive drone in the “toy” class. If you’re looking at faster drones that can carry more weight, fly further, and fly for longer, then you may save money building your own. The customization element comes into play here. When you’re dabbling in higher-end drones, the cost of cameras, motors, frames, and other components can add up quickly. With a selective eye for only necessary features, you may be able to cut costs while maximizing performance.
What If You Can’t Decide?
As we’ve noted, the price differences on home-built and RTF drones in the upper-tiers may not be that different, and customization and modding may not be everyone’s strong suit. So how can you decide which way to go? Our best recommendation is to consider which parts of drone aviation mean the most to you. If the actual aircraft is the draw, then we wholeheartedly recommend building. Just one build will teach you more about drones than you may ever learn by watching videos.
If your true passion is in film-making or outdoor recreation and drones are more of a tool, then it may be best to buy. You may sacrifice a few features or have to accept a few you don’t need, but an RTF drone could have you up and flying within a matter of minutes instead of months. Many of the lower-cost drones also have surprisingly high-grade cameras that could fit nicely alongside other gear in your arsenal.
What Kinds Of Drones Can You Build?
So, you’re a DIY-inspired soul, and it’s time to learn how to build a drone. Now what? The first thing you’ll need to know are the most common types of drones. You don’t have to adhere to these designs for success, but you may find these tried-and-true styles a good starting place, especially if you’re a new drone pilot.
The quadcopter is the most common type of drone available on the market, and it’s also the most common for new builders. Like the name would suggest, a quadcopter has four arms that are connected to a central hub. With a quadcopter, the legs can cross either in an “x” configuration or a “+” configuration. These are relatively subtle differences, but they can impact the fit and carry capacity of some peripherals like cameras.
If you’re considering your first drone, building a quadcopter is probably the smartest way to go. It’s a simple, tough and versatile design that is capable of either being fast and light or heavy and durable. Some of the most common RTF drones on the market from brands like Parrot and DJI are quadcopters.
Though tricopters aren’t as common as quadcopters, they can provide a good and lighter weight option for those new to the sport. A tricopter is a drone that will have three arms, two of which face forward and on in the back. These arms will all have about 120-degrees between them. An important note is that the rear motor on a tricopter must work independently of the other two motors to ensure that the drone tracks properly.
A hexacopter will have six arms, all of which are equipped with their own motor. These are far more powerful than quad and tricopters and can lift much heavier payloads. This can be a great choice for those engaged in serious photography or carrying larger sensors. As expected, hexacopters can be considerably more expensive to both own and operate, so they can be good contenders for a build if you’re looking to cut costs.
Octacopters take the power of a hexacopter further still, adding two more arms equipped with motors. We would generally recommend avoiding an octacopter build if you’re new to the sport or have limited DIY chops. These drones will not only be expensive but also heavy and powerful. If you’re not an experienced pilot, it could be easy to misjudge the thrust of such a powerful unit and potentially lose the expensive cargo you have on board. If you’re a seasoned vet looking to hit a new level, however, an octacopter could be just the ticket.
How To Build A Drone In Simple Steps
Once you’ve done your research about how to build a drone and settled on a design, you’ll be ready to select your materials and start your build. We do not mean this list to be a compulsory set of instructions about how to build a drone, but rather an outline of the steps you can expect to follow. If you dig deeper about how to build a drone, you’ll find more detailed instructions including specific directions for the components you have purchased.
1. Assemble Your Frame
Whether you select a kit, pre-built frame, or go fully DIY, you’ll need somewhere to attach the guts of your drone. Choose a light and durable material like wood, aluminum, or carbon fiber and assemble your drone in the shape. If you’re building a quadcopter, this would be an “x” shape. Next, you must ensure that all the legs are prepped with carefully drilled holes ready to accept a motor.
2. Affix Motors
Now you have your frame assembled and prepped; you can affix a motor to the end of each arm. Most drone motors come with screws or mounting accessories and easy instructions. For this job, you’ll want to have a few simple tools on hand like pliers and a screwdriver.
3. Connect Your Speed Controllers
Once your motors are attached, the next step will be to attach your electronic speed controllers or ESCs. Mounting the ESCs directly to the bottom of the drone will reclaim valuable space on the upper side of the frame that can later hold components and tools on the top of the frame.
4. Connect Landing Apparatus
Now you’ve got your frame assembled, motors connected and ESCs attached, you’ll need landing gear. Having the right landing gear is critical for any drone build as it will help your aircraft return safely to the ground without buckling under its own weight. Though it’s possible to use wood for the frame, opt for a more flexible material like plastic for the landing gear to ensure they don’t break under repeated use.
5. Mount Flight Controller
The flight controller is like a brain for your drone. It will translate wind variations, speeds, and heights into useful information that ultimately keeps your drone flying safely. Very advanced builders will often custom build flight controls to meet their exacting standards, but we recommend you find one that meets your needs and budget and buy it pre-built. One key tip here is to mount a sponge or some foam in between your frame and flight controller to cut down on unwanted jitter during flight.
6. Add Your LibrePilot Device
This is actually a two-step process. First, you must connect your motors to your flight controller. This process will vary slightly from controller to controller, so consult user manuals before you jump in. Once you are all connected, add LibrePilot to your device. For the uninitiated, LibrePilot is a software program that connects to your flight controller and allows you to test your drone without launching it and risking critical errors. Once LibrePilot is installed, give your drone a complete testing.
7. Make Your First Test Flight
Once your new drone has been fully assembled and thoroughly tested using LibrePilot, it’s time for a test flight. Find a wide-open space free of any crowds, trees of excessively high winds. This is a good idea even for experienced pilots when using a new and untested drone. Note any unexpected flaws or lags in performance during initial tests flights and tweak performance over your first few weeks with the new drone. It’s also worth considering a high-quality travel case for your drone to protect the valuable and often delicate components on board.
Learning how to build a drone can be a fun, challenging, and enriching experience for both experienced and new pilots. It may not be the best introduction to drones for everyone, but if you’ve got a flair for DIY projects and an interest in aviation, it could be for you.