Drones are a popular toy gadget, and I consider myself a hobbyist for the many uses of owning a drone. However, some features are only available on better models, which can be pricey. Luckily, I learned that building my own drone is a fun activity that saves me some money. Plus, there’s something satisfying when you can say, “I made this.”
This article will explain the basic steps and materials needed to build your own drone.
Basic Tools and Materials For Building a Drone
The first thing you need before building a drone is the right tools and materials. The quality of your DIY drone depends on how much you spend on the materials. Every hobbyist needs to research the tools to keep your new drone in one piece.
The following is a list of the most common tools you will likely use in the building process.
Soldering Iron (and Solder)
Having a soldering iron is crucial for building a drone from scratch. A soldering iron is a tool used by hand to heat and melt solder into the space between two pieces. For your drone, this tool helps connect the electronic pieces together. It can also be a handy repair kit when the drone breaks and pieces need reconnecting.
Along with soldering, you will run into wires that require trimming to a certain length. A wire cutter makes this process easy to cut with accuracy. A wire stripper is also handy for removing insulation from the tip of the wire and prepping it for soldering.
The multimeter is a tool to keep track of your drone’s overall performance by detecting the voltage between two points. This tool scans the drone and finds points of short electrical currents or discontinuities caused by soldering. The multimeter is the best item for maintenance and damage diagnosis on your drone.
Double-sided tape is a good alternative to glue because it’s less messy, has a stronger adhesive, and can secure your component with a firm press. Double-sided tape is ideal for sticking receivers into position and mounting flashing LEDs.
Through some trial and error, I’ve found the best type of double-sided tape is the one with vibration dampening. It’s durable, resists moisture, and absorbs vibration so pieces stay put.
Velcro straps act as another layer of security for your drone components and can organize and keep parts from falling out of place. If you are working with several wires, a velcro strap can bundle them together in a tight lock. These straps are also adjustable to any size and thickness of the components.
If you don’t have any tape or velcro straps, a pack of zip ties can also come in handy to secure drone parts with reliable tightness. Zip ties are also a good choice because of their size; they are also narrow enough to fit into tight spaces. Most people like to secure their ESCs (electronic speed controllers) with a zip tie and cut the remaining end loose.
Heat Shrink or Electrical Tape
Building a drone involves a lot of heat and electricity. Having some heat shrink or electrical tape on hand keeps you safe from injury while securing components. Heat shrinks are handy for insulating exposed wires, and electrical tapes keep your fingers safe as they work closely with parts that can inflict sparks.
Basic Components Required to Build a Drone
Once you gather all the tools to craft your drone, you can start looking into the components you’ll use. This stage of the process is where most of the creativity goes into custom-built drones, and it’s my favorite part of drone-building because I’m in charge of the power and speed the drone puts out.
The following is a basic list of basic components you’ll need to build your drone.
Imagine the frame as the ultimate blueprint for your drone; it’s the drone’s skeleton that shapes the overall weight and design. A frame comes in many different shapes and sizes, so focus on what you want your drone to be. When looking at the other components on this list, be sure they are a good fit for the drone frame you’ve chosen.
The drone’s motor is responsible for controlling the rotation of the propellers. The number of motors should equal the number of propellers the drone has. This balance enhances the drone’s sense of direction and improves overall efficiency. When choosing the right set of motors, focus on parameters like the voltage level, thrust to weight ratio, and power.
A drone is nothing without its propellers. These clove-like blades are ideally shaped to create a difference in air pressure. The propellers cutting through the air make it possible for the drone to move in all directions. The quality of the propellers determines the strength and power the drone uses to fly through the air.
The Electronic Speed Controller
The electronic speed controller, or ESC, controls the speed of the drone’s motor. A control board powers this function and gauges the speed levels and acts as a dynamic brake. This module helps you (or the pilot) estimate the amount of the height the drone is flying in. When choosing the best ESC for your drone, you’ll need to choose one that works well against changes in altitude.
The battery is the heart of every electronic. In the case of drones, this component gives power to the rest of the machine to function. The battery you choose will power the motor and propellers and fuel them with the intended wattage. When choosing a battery for your custom drone, there are a couple of factors to consider.
Lipo Cell Count
In the world of batteries, the lipo cell count equates to the voltage power. One lipo cell carries a voltage level of 3.7 volts. You can combine multiple batteries to raise the voltage level and increase the speed of the motor and propellers. You can find batteries with more cells, but that can impact the weight of the cell battery and drone.
Depending on the size and capacity of your battery, the drone’s flight time will be affected. Milliamp hours, or mAh, is the battery capacity that indicates the number of electrical currents a battery has in an hour. The trade-off for a higher capacity is more weight; this affects not only your drone’s flight time but also the overall agility of your creation.
The C-Rating, or discharge rate, calculates the max discharge current of a LiPo battery. This measurement is crucial to determining the size of the motor and propellers. If the C-Rating is too low, the motor and propellers won’t have enough power to function.
On the other hand, if the C-Rating is too high, the battery won’t improve drone performance; instead, the drone ends up carrying dead weight.
Power Distribution Board
The Power Distribution Board, or PDB, is the motherboard of the battery. It is the central point where all the electrical components connect. Plugging the battery into the PDB will power any electrical wires attached to it. The size of the board determines how many components can fit onto it.
The Flight Controller
The flight controller (or FC for short) is essentially the brain of the drone, and, depending on the drone you’re attempting to build, the flight control will be simple or complex. This circuit board contains sensors and electrical components that monitor and control the drone. Every flight controller has a gyroscope and accelerometer to balance to drone without any manual input.
Adding a GPS module to your drone is not needed, but a handy feature for advanced modifications and one of my favorite upgrades. A drone with a GPS function can link to orbiting satellites and perform different actions like auto-pilot, waypoint navigation, and return home on its own. The hardware is affordable and offers an easier way to pilot the drone.
The RC Controller
The RC controller connects with the drone through radio transmitters and basically tells the drone what to do. The receiver connects with the flight controller and allows the RC controller to input commands. Most RC controllers don’t have a screen, and you can only do four basic commands: roll, pitch, yaw, and throttle. With six radio channels, the drone has additional features added, like changing the flight mode.
If you don’t want to operate the drone with a controller, you can do it with wireless communication. The telemetry module connects one antenna to the drone and the other to a computer. With this feature, you can fly the drone from the comfort of your own home.
Things to Consider
The process of building a drone is fun and teaches you’re guaranteed to learn a lot about electronic construction. However, knowing the parts and components to include in your drone won’t be enough. Even with all the materials gathered, your style and preference play a huge role in how your drone turns out.
Here are some additional tips to consider when building your drone.
The material of the frame is more important than most people think. Not only does it give your drone a unique design, but also affects the weight and durability against winds. From wooden frames to plastic, there’s an unlimited source of materials you can use for your drone’s frame.
Is Carbon Fiber the Best Frame Material?
Most drone enthusiasts agree that dressing your drone in carbon fiber material is best. Carbon fiber is very tough but also lightweight. It allows your drone to fly with ease and consume less energy. Carbon fiber drone frame material also tends to be inexpensive, making it a great choice for any beginner drone builder.
A drone with a good motor will be able to stay alive and fly for a lengthy amount of time. The type of motor you choose can affect several aspects like friction reduction, weight, and flying speed. Whichever one you decide, know that there are two main types of motors available.
Brushless Vs. Brushed
The main difference between a brushed and brushless motor is the number of parts needed to work. Brushed motors require a rotating mechanism, while brushless motors operate electronically.
Brushed motors also require a lot of cost maintenance to stay functional. The brushless models are energy efficient and don’t need constant care to keep working.
Building a Racing Drone?
If you are building a drone for racing purposes, then it’s going to require a lot of power and speed. A Kv motor is a quality choice for drone racers. It is the constant velocity of a motor that determines how fast the motor will rotate. It is the drone’s horsepower, and the more Kv a motor has, the more powerful it is.
It might not seem like anything at first, but on the first test drive, you will notice how the propeller size affects the drone. Large propeller blades have more contact with the air. It allows the drone to be more stable when hovering in place.
On the other hand, small propeller blades don’t need much effort to speed or slow down. They are better suited for quick movements, while large propeller blades are the best at carrying a heavy load. In this case, smaller is better.
Calculate the Thrust-to-Weight Ratio
Understanding the TW ratio requires the drone’s weight and the motor’s thrust power. Many motors come from manufacturers with their own thrust tables and various thrust levels listed.
Remember that there’s no right way to build a drone. There are parts and materials that are standard for every drone, but the best part of building your own drone is the creative decisions you’ll make while designing a drone suitable to your taste. Have fun with the process, and see what kind of drones you can make!