Build the Complete DIY Quadcopter
Note: I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.
A DIY quadcopter is something that just about every flyer thinks about sooner or later. Learning about what really makes your machine move up, down, and sideways can be a great experience. However, if you’ve never attempted something like this before, it can look like an insurmountable task at first.
You can learn how to build your own quadcopter by following one of several paths. I’ll cover each of these possible roads to success in what follows below. There will be several options at certain points along the way. The choices you make will depend on how much you want to invest and the quality of the final product you expect.
I’ll mention up front a little something about soldering. If you’re like me and have never soldered before, don’t despair. There is a way to build a quadcopter without having to do any soldering! If you get parts that already have connectors pre-soldered, you just need to snap them together, and you’ll soon be ready to fly.
What Do I Need To Make a Quadcopter? A Quadcopter Parts List
There are actually two lists I’ll give you here. One is a list of parts that make up the quadcopter itself. The other is a list of accessories and tools you might use to build your quadcopter.
The items in the parts list are generally required to make a complete quadcopter. The ones in the accessories and tools list may be optional, depending on which pieces you choose for parts.
- Flight Control Board
- Power Distribution Board or Power Breakout Cable
- Battery Charger
- Low Voltage Alarm
- Programming Card
Tools and Accessories List
- Zip ties
- Double-Sided Tape or Velcro or Battery Strap
- Small Screwdrivers
- Hex Wrenches
- Needle Nose Pliers
- Heat Shrink
- Mounting Foam (Flight control board to frame)
- Soldering Iron and Solder
- Heat Sink
- Small Clamp
- Loctite or Gorilla Glue
Let’s take a look at each of the items in the parts list. I’ll explain what each one does and why you need it. I’ll also give some examples of specific parts you might consider as part of your quadcopter.
As you might expect, this is an evolving hobby, so specifics listed here may not be in stock or available indefinitely. Something new will probably be designed that will be better and cheaper. If so, you should feel free to use such improved parts instead of those suggested here.
The frame consists of the central body and four arms (or legs, if you prefer) of the quadcopter. It’s the part to which you’ll attach everything else. The frame itself may come as a kit that needs to be assembled.
The best quadcopter frame for you depends on what you want your machine to do. I’m going to assume that, for your first DIY quadcopter, you just want to make something that will fly and not do anything fancy like take pictures or do aerobatics. Any of the following frames will be able to handle that minimum requirement, and some can do more.
- Turnigy Talon Carbon Fiber
- Turnigy Heavy Aerial Lift (HAL)
- DJI F450
- HobbyKing X525 V3 Glass Fiber 600mm
- HobbyKing SK450 Glass Fiber
- HobbyKing Q450 V3 Glass Fiber
Flight Control Board
Much like your brain controls what you do, the flight control board is in charge of making sure everything is in order on a quadcopter. It also does the sending and receiving (indirectly) of signals between your transmitter and aircraft.
A common control board is one produced by HobbyKing. Several versions (of firmware) are available, so you may find reference to the same “KK” board with different numbers following. If you decide to get this board, I would suggest getting the one with the highest numbers.
You’ll need one motor at the end of each arm of your frame. In combination with the propellers, these will create the thrust and lift that will get your machine into the air.
- Turnigy D2830-11 1000kv Brushless Motor
- Turnigy Aerodrive SK3 – 2826-1130kv Brushless Outrunner Motor
- Turnigy 2836 Brushless Outrunner 1200kv
- NTM Prop Drive Series 28-26 1100kv / 252w
- NTM 28-30S 800kv / 300W Brushless Motor (short shaft; requires accessory pack)
To help you decide which motor to get, HobbyKing has an online Motor Finder tool.
On a quadcopter, two of the propellers (props, for short) spin clockwise (or to the right) and two spin counterclockwise (left). You need to make sure you get at least a pair of each. You may be able to find sets sold just that way – two of each.
Most experienced flyers suggest that you get more props than you think you’ll need because you’re almost certain to damage some of them during your flights.
- 10×4.5 SF Props 2pc CW 2pc CCW (many colors available)
- GWS Props 9x5x3
- 10×4.5 propeller set
- 9×4.7 SF clockwise set
- 9×4.7 SF counterclockwise set
Electronic Speed Controls (ESCs)
The battery (below) in your system produces DC power, but the rest of your system needs AC. The ESCs convert DC to AC for you. By varying the current and speed of the electrical pulses, you can change the speed of the motors. Since each connects to a motor, you’ll need four of these as well.
The Afro brand ESCs are highly recommended because they were specifically designed for quadcopter use.
- HobbyKing 25A Red Brick
- HobbyKing 20A BlueSeries Brushless Speed Controller
- Turnigy Plush 25A
- Turnigy Plush 30 Amp
- Turnigy Multistar 20 Amp Multi-rotor Brushless ESC 2-4S (OPTO, requires BEC)
- Turnigy Multistar 30 Amp Multi-rotor Brushless ESC 2-4S
- Afro 20 Amp Multi-rotor Motor Speed Controller (SimonK Firmware)
- Afro 30 Amp Multi-rotor Motor Speed Controller (SimonK Firmware; BEC included)
Power Distribution Board or Power Breakout Cable
You’ve got four motor-propeller sets each connected to an ESC. You’ll have just one battery pack. Your power distribution system will connect all that rather neatly. You can either use a circuit board or a cable to make this four-to-one connection.
- HobbyKing Quadcopter Power Distribution Board
- HXT 4mm to 4×3.5mm bullet Multistar ESC Power Breakout Cable
The battery is what powers the whole aircraft. The size and type you get will depend on a number of factors including the weight of the machine, size of the motors, and the amount of time you want to fly before recharging.
- Turnigy 2200mAh 3S 20C Lipo Pack
- Turnigy nano-tech 3S 3300mAh 25~50C
- ZIPPY Compact 4000mAh 3S 25C LiPo
- ZIPPY Flightmax 1800mAh 3-cell 20C
To help you find a good battery for your situation, HobbyKing has this online Battery Finder tool.
The lithium polymer batteries you use in your quadcopter will need to be charged many times, including before you make your first flight. Many chargers are available; one that also balances the charging among the (three or more) cells in the battery pack is preferred.
- Turnigy Accucel-6 50W 6A Balancer Battery Charger (requires power supply)
- Turnigy 2-3S Balance (Battery) Charger
Radio Transmitter and Receiver
There are many, many transmitters (often shortened to Tx) and receivers (Rx) in the market. As long as the one you choose has at least 4 channels (for speed, yaw, pitch, and roll), you should do fine. It is probably preferable to get one that is Mode 2; that is, the left control stick handles the throttle and the right takes the elevation. A Mode 1 transmitter reverses these. A transmitter with more channels gives you more options for the future.
- Turnigy 9X 9Ch Transmitter with Module & 8Ch Receiver (Mode 2) (v2 Firmware)
- HobbyKing 2.4Ghz 4Ch Transmitter and Receiver V2 (Mode 2)
- OrangeRx T-SIX 2.4Ghz DSM2 6Ch Transmitter (Mode 2) (no receiver)
- OrangeRx R610 Spektrum DSM2 6Ch Receiver
Low Voltage Alarm
You should never use a Lipo battery for so long that it completely loses its charge. You won’t be able to recharge it, if it does. So you’ll want to be alerted when the charge is getting low. A low voltage alarm will tell you when it’s time to stop flying and bring your quadcopter in for a recharge.
A programming card is the only item in this list that you might consider optional. Programming your ESCs can be done manually, but a card make the process much easier.
Variables within an ESC that you can set include (at least) the following.
- Battery Chemistry: Lipoly, Nimh, Life
- LVC Voltage (per cell): Lipo 2.8-3.2, Nimh 0.6-0.9, Life 2.2-2.8
- LVC Cut Off Type: Hard cut or Power reduction
- Brake: Off, Medium, and Hard
- Timing: Low, Medium, High, and Auto
- Soft Start: Slow, Medium, and Fast
Here are two suggestions for a programming card.
How Do I Assemble a Quadcopter?
Quadcopter design can be a tricky thing simply because there are so many parts involved. The exact assembly process you will use depends on which individual parts you selected. I’ll try to give you a general walk-through here that should work in most cases.
You’ll start with the frame, since that’s where you’ll attach everything else. Many frames come in pieces that you’ll need to put together. You’ll likely have two base plates that go in the center. The four arms will extend outward from there. Assemble each as needed and attach them to the base plates, following any specific directions provided. You may wish to apply a little Loctite or Gorilla glue to the nuts and bolts.
Most of the remaining steps depend on the configuration of your frame and whether or not you have pieces that require soldering. The basic configuration in all cases is the following.
Battery – Flight Controller Board – Power Distribution Board/Cable – ESC – Motor/Prop
You also attach the Receiver to the Flight Controller Board with male-to-male servo connectors using the configuration below. The white signal wire in each set should face inward on the board.
- M1 – front left
- M2 – front right
- M3 – back right
- M4 – back left
You may need to solder connectors to each ESC. Since the ESCs will be stretched out along the arms, you will probably want to secure them there using zip ties. If you have a Programming Card, you can plug in the battery and use the card to calibrate each ESC according to specifications such as the following.
- Brake = OFF
- Battery Type = Li-xx
- Cut Off Type = Soft-Cut
- Cut Off Voltage = Low
- Start Mode = Normal
- Timing Mode = High
- Music/li-po Cells = (none)
- Governor Mode = OFF
If you do not have a Programming Card, follow these steps to calibrate each ESC manually.
- For safety, disconnect the battery and remove the propellers.
- Figure out which channel on the receiver is the throttle. They are marked on the control board.
- Remove the control cables from the receiver.
- Remove one of the ESC cables from the control board and plug it into the throttle channel on the receiver.
- If you have a stand-alone BEC, remove it from the control board and plug it into the receiver too. You can use any spare channel other than the throttle.
- Turn on the transmitter and move the throttle stick to 100% (full throttle).
- Connect the battery. A light on the receiver should turn on. If it doesn’t, or it starts blinking, make sure that the receiver is powered and that it’s bound to the transmitter.
- Soon after the battery is connected, you should hear a short tone and then a long beep from the ESC. When you hear the long beep, return the throttle stick on the transmitter to zero.
- The ESC should make a confirmation beep and then the startup tone again.
The ESC is now calibrated. Unplug the battery, and reconnect the ESC’s control wire to the control board. Repeat steps 4-9 above for each ESC. Connect the receiver’s control wires (and BEC) into the control board again.
You’ll attach the Flight Controller and Power Distribution Boards to the center base plates. The Flight Controller should be orientated so that its buttons are at the rear of the quadcopter. You’ll strap the battery to the bottom using the dedicated strap or regular Velcro. Assuming you have a plug-in low voltage alarm, connect it to the balance lead.
You connect the motors to the ends of the arms and add the props there as well using hardware provided.
If you have a KK2.0 (or later) board, you should have a piezo buzzer that you can connect in the designated place. Then you can use the board to do a receiver test, calibrate the sensors, load the motor layout, and switch from Safe to Armed mode. You’ll probably also want to set auto levelling to make the quadcopter easier to control. Then charge the battery, and you should be ready to fly.
There are a few more advanced procedures that I’ll just mention here but not describe in any detail. You may want to look into these further as you get more experienced with your quadcopter.
Change the configuration from X to + (or vice versa). You can use a HobbyKing USB ASP programmer.
Flash the ESCs to upgrade the firmware.
Perform PI (Proportional-Integral) tuning.
Can I Build a Quadcopter without Doing Any Soldering?
If you use the following pieces (or similar), you should be able to put together a complete quadcopter without touching a soldering iron.
- Frame: HobbyKing Q450 V3 Glass Fiber Frame
- Flight controller: HobbyKing KK2.1.5
- ESCs: Afro ESC 20 Amp Multi-rotor Motor Speed Controllers
- Battery: Turnigy 2200mAh 3S 20C Lipo Pack
- Props: 10×4.5 SF Props 2pc CW 2pc CCW
- Motors: NTM Prop Drive Series 28-26 1100kv / 252w
- Power Distribution Board: HobbyKing Quadcopter Power Distribution Board
Here is another possible setup for your machine.
- Flight Controller: HobbyKing KK2.1.5
- Frame: HobbyKing X525 V3 Glass Fiber 600mm
- Motors: NTM 28-30S 800kv / 300W Brushless Motor (short shaft; requires accessory pack)
- ESCs: Afro ESC 20Amp Multi-rotor Motor Speed Controller (SimonK Firmware)
- Propellers: 10×4.5 SF Props 2pc CW 2pc CCW
- Battery: Turnigy nano-tech 3S 3300mAh 25~50C
- Power Distribution: HXT 4mm to 4×3.5mm bullet Multistar ESC Power Breakout Cable
- Mounting Foam: Gyro / Flight Controller Mounting Pad (10pcs/bag)
- Battery Alarm: HobbyKing Lipoly Low Voltage Alarm (2s~4s)
- Battery Strap: Turnigy Battery Strap 330mm
- Receiver Leads: 10cm Male to Male Servo Lead (JR) 26AWG (10pcs/set)
Where Can I Buy Parts for My Quadcopter?
Virtually all the links in this article will take you to HobbyKing or Amazon. This does not mean that they are always the best place to make your purchases. You can find the same or similar parts at other sites or even a local hobby shop. That said, HobbyKing does have a good reputation and carries supplies for much more than the items you’ll need for a DIY quadcopter, so be sure to at least give them a look. And Amazon is a place where you can safely shop not only for quadcopter parts but just about anything else you might need.
The choice then is yours. It’s hard to go wrong as long as you do make a choice. Be bold and brave. Go out and make yours today.