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How to Build a Drone
Before embarking on the step-by-step guide to building a drone, an important step is to know how to assemble the right materials and equipment. Some of the equipment is necessary, while others are optional, depending on the individual’s preference in a drone.
The necessary materials or equipment to build your own drone are:
- Drone Frame
- Landing Gear
- Control Unit or Flight Controller
- Electronic Speed Controller (ESC)
- Electric Motors
- Power Distribution Board
- Radio Receiver and Station
Optional pieces of equipment for building a drone includes:
- GPS Module
- Video transmitter and Receiver
A key part of a DIY drone is understanding the quality of the materials used and their compatibility with each other. Here are some recommendations on the equipment listed above.
The drone’s frame is the part of the drone that holds all other equipment. Drone frames can be built or brought, although it is advisable to buy one. Frames for drones are usually made from plastic, aluminum, or carbon fiber. Also, the size of a drone frame is largely dependent on the size of the drone the builder wants.
Another important thing to consider before choosing a drone frame is the drone’s purpose. For example, building a racing drone requires a light and lean frame (less than 400mm in dimension) made with carbon fiber, while camera drones can use frames larger than 400mm in dimension due to the weight they will carry.
Other considerations for a drone frame are: where the battery will be placed, replaceable spokes or a one-piece design, thickness of the arms, and a mounting spot for a camera.
This part of a drone build might seem unimportant, but it is vital to the longevity of a drone. The landing gear is the part of the drone that hits the floor when it lands. This part is usually made with plastic (or materials that can withstand pressure without breaking easily). A recommended material is half-inch cuttings from a 4-inch PVC pipe in four places.
Electronic Speed Controller
Electronic Speed Controllers, a.k.a. ESCs are small modules that help produce the required current to drive the drone motors(1). The ESC receives instructions from the remote control for increased or decreased speed and supplies the corresponding current to the motors.
An ESC can only work for a single motor, so the number of motors determines the number of ESCs to buy. ESCs can either be gotten separately or on an all-in-one board. Furthermore, ESC sizes must correspond to the motor size, which also has to correspond with the size of the drone. Some tables can guide individuals interested in learning how to build a drone from scratch on the correct ESC sizes for drone motors.
Control Unit or Flight Controller
This component is the drone’s CPU. The control unit is the part of the drone where every drone function is hinged. Most of the control units in the market today have an accelerometer and a gyroscope because they are quite essential to flying a drone. Some more expensive flight controllers have GPS, barometer, compass e.t.c.
Things to consider in a flight controller before you build your own drone includes
- Processor: Modern processors are better for achieving higher speeds.
- UART Ports: These ports connect other components like video transmitters and On-Screen Display.
- All-in-one or Separate: Sometimes, the Power Distribution board is integrated with the flight controller. Each has its advantages.
- On-screen Display: Some control units have on-screen display chips installed. OSDs help relay vital information about what’s going on in the drone.
- RF Socket: A part of the flight controller that helps it communicate wirelessly with a computer
- USB port(s): They are usually micro and it’s necessary for when a computer software will be used to program the drone.
Always make sure to test the drone at intermittent intervals so as to ensure that the connections are right along the way.
Electric motors are the engines of a drone. The number of motors on a drone equals the number of arms the drone has. These motors are connected to the ESC for instructions. Brushless motors are more used to convert current to drive power. The rule for a drone is that each of its electric motors must have the buoyancy power to lift half the total weight of the drone.
Features to consider in an electric motor for a drone are:
- Size and Weight: The bigger the motor, the higher the torque but the downside is the added weight of being bigger.
- Velocity Constant (Kv): This indicates how many rotations the motors will produce per minute. A 1000kv motor on 10v will produce 10,000 rotations per minute. Achieving high rpm with the motors results in less torque with high speeds and vice versa.
Power Distribution Board (PDB)
The PDB, like the name implies, distributes voltage to the components on the drone. For example camera, control units, ESC e.t.c. PDBs are necessary for managing the power from the battery to the components necessary to build your own drone.
While some control units have the PDB integrated, considerations such as connector location and voltage requirements should be made before buying a PDB.
The fan-like components are attached to the motors for the take-off and landing of drones. Although top-tier propellers are made from carbon fibers, it is advisable to use plastic propellers because it’s one of the drone’s parts that damages easily. Propellers are categorized based on make, blade size, number of blades, weight, and stiffness.
Standardized batteries are recommended for drones, so picking one out should not be an issue. Some of the features to consider are type (LiPo or LiHV), weight, and shape (is the battery round or flat).
Radio Receiver and Station
The radio receiver and station(controller) are the final compulsory parts to build your own drone. The receiver, stationed on the drone and connected to the control unit, dictates the range of transmission from the controller to the drone. The receiver usually has multiple channels for communication, and instructions are commonly passed over the 2.4GHz frequency.
The controller (radio station), which is not a part of the primary drone build, is also an important piece of equipment, without which a person cannot pilot the drone. Some features to consider in a radio station(2) includes
- Grip: how easy it is to handle the controls. The grip can also be associated with the gimbal.
- Batteries: Rechargeable or AA batteries.
Most drones are built with a camera on them. However, these cameras are small and sometimes only produce HD resolution pictures. So the key is to get a balance between size and quality. Another important consideration is the mounting option, which should be checked with the drone frame.
Every other component an individual wants to add to the drone will most likely be connected to the control unit. Everything goes through the flight controller, whether it’s the GPS module, video transmitter module, or barometer. External components like the camera gimbal, battery charger, FPV goggles do not need to be connected with the control unit.
Step-by-step Guide on how to Build Your Drone
Before starting to assemble the drone parts, it is important tools like:
- Soldering iron
- Connecting cables
- Zip ties
- Electrical tape
- Thread Locker
- Hex keys or screwdrivers
- Wire Cutters
With the necessary tools and drone parts in place, it is time to learn how to build a drone from scratch.
- Step 1: The first thing is to assign all the parts. It is advisable to use a drone frame reference for easy assignment.
- Step 2: Drill single holes at the tip of the drone frame arms if the holes are not yet provided. Make sure the holes are only large enough to hold the motor screws.
- Step 3: Attach the landing gear to the individual arms of the drone frame.
- Step 4: It is time to mount the PDB. If the PDB is attached to the control unit, the battery and USB port should be considered. However, If the PDB is a different component on its own, the battery’s position should be considered.
- Step 5: Mount the motors by fixing them down with screws. Note the rotation pattern of the motors to arrange the motors in a clockwise and anticlockwise pattern on the frame arms.
- Step 6: Now, mount the ESCs and connect each ESC to a motor. You can fasten the ESC to the frame with the help of zip ties and make sure to use a heat shrink to insulate the ESC from the frame. Some connections need soldering, while others simply use clips. Make sure there are no overlapping wires.
- Step 7: Connect the ESC to the PDB. This part is very vital as a wrong connection will destroy the drone.
- Step 8: Now, it is time to attach the batteries to the frame. Some frames have ready-made space for batteries while you may have to improvise.
- Step 9: Connect the components you want like cameras, transmitters e.t.c to the control unit.
- Step 10: Now mount the flight controller and connect it to the PDB and ESC.
- Step 11: Attach the propellers to the motors
- Step 12: Connect the flight controller to a computer and install the right software for piloting.
Drone frame sizes majorly depend on the purpose the drone is being built. However, the drone frame size with the highest available component is the 5-inch drone frame size.
The motors on a drone are responsible for how high a drone can go. You should also note that larger motors usually add more weight to the overall weight of the drone.
Learning how to build a drone from scratch empowers you with the right knowledge to build a drone and helps you make informed decisions when you want to make a replacement. Now nothing is stopping you from building the drone of your dreams.
What size of drone do you prefer? What component would you like to add to your drone build? Feel free to tell us in the comments.
- Mike B. (2018 June). KDE directly upgrades UAV electronic speed controllers. Retrieved from https://www.unmannedsystemstechnology.com/2018/06/kde-direct-announce-new-upgrades-for-uav-electronic-speed-controllers/
- Zacc D. (2019 Sept). Drone controllers: a look at how they work, important terminology, and why they are unique in the RC aircraft world. Retrieved from https://uavcoach.com/drone-controller/