How to Build a Drone? A Step by Step Guide

How to Build a Drone

Did you know that the “number of small hobbyist drones registered in the United States totaled 1.1 million units in 2019.” This stat was published by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on March 10, 2020. Gone are the days when drones were restricted to science experiments and secret military operations. In 2020, even a kid can build his/her drone and fly without needing a license. 

The FAA lets you fly the drone without a remote pilot’s license as long you do it for recreational purposes. Not only that, but you also have to follow the guidelines set by the local authorities (and the FAA). Since you have decided to build your own drone, I am assuming you already have decent experience flying an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). 

Usually, newbie drone pilots prefer to buy a starter drone. Learning to fly can take a while, and accidents such as crash or rough landings are quite prevalent. You don’t want to risk damaging an expensive drone. I also want to make it clear that anyone — irrespective of their educational qualifications— can learn how to build a drone. The ready-to-assemble components/parts are available in the market.

Can You Build Your Own Drone?

I understand why so many people wonder if it is really possible to build a drone— all by yourself— at home. A drone may appear like a complex, intricate, and highly technical machinery, but when you have the right tools at your disposal, assembling it is easy as pie. Like any other ready-to-assemble electronics project, constructing a drone is easy and requires minimal effort.

Is it Cheaper to Build or Buy a Drone?

It is always cheaper to buy a ready-to-fly drone than to build one. That being said, you should build a drone only if you wish to learn to fly it. Drone piloting is not a natural skill. Crashing or losing a DIY drone will result in a considerable loss. Trainer drones are available under $100. You can learn without putting too much at risk. To conclude, trainer drones are cheaper than building one with similar features.

What are the Types of Drone I Can Build on My Own?

A quadcopter is the most popular type of drone among drone hobbyists. When building with the right components, it can be powerful and effective enough for both personal and professional use. In this section, I have shared the different types of drones you can make at home. You must pick the components/parts depending on the type you choose.

1. Quadcopter

As I already stated, a quadcopter is one of the most sought-after consumer unmanned aircraft. It is also popularly known as a quad or a quadcopter helicopter. It is lifted and propelled by four rotors. 

Two rotors or propeller blades rotate clockwise, and the other two rotate anti-clockwise. The speed of each rotor can be controlled via remote control. The lifting force (known as thrust) and turning force (known as torque) can be varied depending on the requirement. 

2. Micro/ Racing Drone

A micro drone is generally a miniaturized quadcopter suitable for racing purposes. It is also known as the Micro Air Vehicle (MAV). A micro drone is less than four inches in length and two-inch in width. Also, it weighs less than a pound. The U.S. Air Force developed these drones. Following is a simulated image of a bumblebee-sized micro drone designed by the U.S. Air Force. 

3. Hexacopter

A hexacopter is a multirotor with six rotor arms. Unlike a quadcopter, a hexacopter can lift heavier payloads. Also, the addition of two rotor blades makes this type of drone more stable and reliable. 

A likelihood of a drone crash goes up in regions with trees, electric wires, or houses. In such an unfortunate event, you don’t want to lose the entire drone— a hexacopter is perfectly capable of flying even with a damaged rotor. 

4. Octocopter

The octocopter is an unmanned aerial vehicle with a total of eight rotors. These drones are used in applications requiring lifting of heavy recording equipment. Octocopters have eight propeller blades and, as a result, are more stable than quadcopters and hexacopters— particularly when flying at a high altitude. 

The presence of eight propellor blades also gives octocopters greater thrust, more maneuverability in mid-air, and a lightning flying speed. Also, the acceleration and deceleration capabilities of an octocopter are unmatchable. Needless to say, building an octocopter at home will need more time, effort, and resources.

How Much Does it Cost to Build a Drone?

Generally speaking, building your own drone at home won’t cost you more than $250. You can also lower the investment to $200 if you are willing to hunt for the budget-priced components (sometime you might have to wait for the discount season). 

In the next section, I have listed the components/parts required to build your own drone. I have also included the approximate cost of each component/part. 

What Do I Need to Build a Drone?

To build your own drone you will need to purchase the following components/parts:

1. Flight Controller

The flight controller is one of the essential parts of a modern FPV drone. It is a tiny circuit board with a microprocessor and several signal processing modules installed. A flight controller is also known to be the brain of a drone.  

As you already must know, a drone is controlled by a remote controller handled by the pilot. The pilot can control the RPM of each rotor with a click of a button. The propellers do not receive the signals directly from the remote controller. 

The flight controller is in constant communication with both the remote controller and the propellers. Upon receiving the signal from the remote controller, the flight controller sends relevant messages to the propellers. It also sends back feedback to the remote controller. 

Approximate Price: $30

2. Drone Frame

Fortunately, if you are planning to build your own drone, you don’t have to worry about creating every little part from scratch. A drone frame is a structure on which the entire drone components/parts rest. These frames are readily available in the market. 

Do not mistake a drone frame for a drone kit. Drone kits come with all components/parts/accessories required to build a drone in one convenient package. However, they are a bit expensive. Hence I haven’t considered them as the first choice. 

What kind of a drone frame should one pick? You will notice that drone frames available in the market are made with a variety of materials. If you are building a drone for video recording or racing purposes, always buy a drone frame made with carbon fiber material. 

Rest, the weight should not exceed more than 150 grams (to be specific, it depends on the application).

Approximate Price: $20

3. Power Distribution Board

A Power Distribution Board is a tiny PCB that helps distribute the battery power to several components present on the drone frame. A good quality Power Distribution Board will come with bullet plugs, but you can also get the job done without them. 

The components like flight controller, propellers, electronic speed controllers, etc. are soldered onto the Power Distribution Board. Make sure you take the voltage output (generally, its 5V) of the Power Distribution Board into consideration.

Approximate Price: $10

4. Brushless Motors

The brushless motors are the essential components that make the propeller function. Each rotor arm holds one brushless motor. These motors are connected to the flight controller via a module known as the electronic speed controller (ESCs).

The blades of the brushless motor in an FPV drone are pointed upwards. When they rotate, the structure is lifted due to the upward thrust generated. These motors are capable of generating a turning force known as torque. 

Motors used in an FPV drone are lightweight and compact. They also have labels indicating the direction of rotation. The number of motors you should buy depends on the type of drone you wish to build. 

Approximate Price: $10 (one piece)

5. Electronic Speed Controller

Electronic Speed Controller (ESCs) is the interface between a brushless motor and the flight controller. It is one of the essential components of the propulsion system. The Electronic Speed Controller regulates the speed and direction of the propeller blades. 

In a brushed motor, the ESCs may or may not be needed. The speed of the blades can easily be controlled with the supplied voltage. Such is not the case with a brushless motor. The ESCs receive a signal from the remote controller (via flight controller), which changes the switching rate of a network of field-effect transistors (FETs).  

The switching frequency of the FETs dictates the speed of the brushless motor. In case you didn’t know, the FETs have a high input impedance, and as a result, they protect the motors from getting damaged due to irregularities in the power supply. They also prevent overheating of the motors.

Approximate Price: $20

6. Propellers

Propellers are the blades that rotate either clockwise or counterclockwise— depending on the type of the motor. The blades convert the rotational power of the motor onto an upwards thrust. Although propellers are also used in sea vessels, the direction of trust in a sea vessel is horizontal and not vertical. 

Propeller blades used in consumer drones are made from a lightweight material called carbon fiber. They are durable enough to withstand crashes and rough landings. Also, they are one-size-fits-all.  

Approximate Price: $8

7. Battery

To operate such a complex machine, you need an efficient system that can supply uninterrupted power without ever breaking down. When you fly a drone above 200 meters from the ground, you are risking the machine and the lives of people/animals beneath. A ten-pound drone— falling from the sky— can do a lot of damage to living beings and property.  

Lithium ions batteries are considered to be the best for a consumer drone. They are not only reliable but also cost-effective— they are rechargeable. Moreover, these batteries are capable of operating in a wide range of temperatures. They have higher energy density and voltage capacity than any other type of cell. Lithium batteries are categorized (as 1S, 2S, 3S, etc.) based on its nominal voltage ratings. 

Approximate Price: $20

8. FPV Camera

Unless you are planning to build a small-range racing drone, installing the right type of an FPV camera is a must. The live footage that you receive from an FPV camera helps you navigate the device without having to keep track of the drone visually. 

For professional purposes, you will need a drone with a flight range of more than 200 meters. Without the live video stream, it would be impossible to control the drone located beyond your eyesight.

Pick an HD FPV camera based on the picture quality you desire. You can easily find an affordable HD camera that offers decent 1080p picture quality. However, not all affordable FPV HD cameras are capable of capturing content in low light. I would recommend brands like GoPro and DJI.

Approximate Price: $50

9. Transmitter and Receiver

A transmitter is nothing but the remote controller handled by the pilot. The transmitter is in constant communication with the receiver— which is connected to the flight controller. Under regulations set by the relevant authorities, a transmitter operated on a fixed frequency of 2.4GHz.

Approximate Price: $60

How to Build a Drone

In the following table, I have provided easy-to-follow instructions to help you build a DIY drone.


How to Build a Drone: Step-by-Step Instructions
Step 1Set Up the FrameA drone frame is a primary structure upon which the parts fit. Put together the frame by following the steps provided in the instructional manual.  
Step 2Mount the MotorsDepending on the number of rotor arms present in your drone, mount the motors with the help of a screwdriver. Make sure you arrange the motors according to the direction of the rotation. 
Step 3Mount the ESCsYou need to connect one ECS for every motor. Usually, ESCs can be mounted on the rotor arms. Good quality drone frames are well-equipped to accommodate ESCs.
Step 4Mount the PDBConnect the PDB with ESCs and mount it in the center of the frame. A PDB is generally held together with the help of standoffs. 
Step 5Fit the Flight ControllerBeing the brain, a flight controller is connected with every component of the drone. Fit the flight controller at the center of the frame with the help of a screw. You can also use standoffs/zip ties if the mounting board has slots in it.
Step 6Attach the PropellersNext, you need to equip each motor with two propeller blades. This step can be performed immediately after mounting the motor, but it can make the structure appear cluttered. 
Step 7Connect the receiver.Keep in mind that the receiver comes with two or more antennas. Hence, it is heavier than other components. Ideally, you should mount the receiver at the back of the drone. It’s important to have the weight evenly distributed in all parts of the drone. 
Step 8Test the TransmitterConnect the receiver to the Lithium-ion battery and test it. 
Step 9Connect the FPV CameraFinally, mount the FPV camera at the bottom of the drone frame. Connect the camera to the PDB via the VTX receiver (is usually bought with the FPV camera).
Step 10Final WiringNow since you have mounted every component/part on the drone frame, it’s time to connect them to the flight controller. A flight controller comes with an instruction manual. Open the page with the pinout diagram. Solder each component to the relevant port on the flight controller. Some flight controllers also come with easy-to-connect slugs.
Step 11Final TouchesBefore your first test flight, it is important to test if every component is working correctly. Test the drone in an indoor location like an empty room or a basement. Also, arrange the lingering (if there are any) cables with the help of a standoff or zip tie.
Step 12Ready to Take-Off!Head out with your drone in an open and obstruction-free area. Make sure there are no houses or trees within the 100-meter radius of the launch pad. Place the drone on the launch pad. Switch on the transmitter and enjoy your first flight. 

Conclusion

When learning how to build a drone, it is normal to doubt your ability to put together such a complex-looking device. I would like to tell you that assembling a drone does not require you to have a college degree in electronics, neither do you need to have passion or interest in this subject. Simply follow the steps given in this post, and you will have a fully-equipped drone ready for its first flight.

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