There is a growing DIY movement in our world. Given the expensive cost of labor and the easy availability of online resources, more and more individuals are taking a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) attitude about many tasks and hobbies, including DIY drones.
Drones are being sold in record numbers today with over 2 million drones legally registered by private owners in the United States. It was inevitable that the DIY craze and the booming drone industry would meet. If you believe you may want to build your own DIY drone, we believe this article will tell you everything you need to know.
What Is a DIY Drone?
At its simplest, a drone is an unmanned aircraft. Drones have no pilots on board, but they are often controlled by a human or group of humans on the ground. Some would consider the simplest drone to be a child's remote-control airplane toy, while more advanced drones include military crafts or even satellites and unmanned spaceships.
Identifying the first military drones is a little bit subjective. As early as the 1800s, armies were using bomb-filled balloons. Some B-24s were already being controlled remotely in World War II. In the 1990s, drones known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) played a primary role in military operations.
A UAV is a drone with a ground-based control system and the ability to communicate between the two. Just like Global Positioning Systems (GPSs) were originally mastered by the military and eventually became available to the general public, drones and UAVs are now a multi-billion-dollar industry serving children and adults around the world.
Average families use drones for everything from aerial photography to children's recreation. Business owners can use drones to fertilize growing fields or for surveillance of property or machinery. Other, courier-oriented businesses are looking into the possibility of using drones for delivery services.
The government uses drones beyond the military. For instance, a drone can be used to track damaging storms or other natural disasters without putting people directly in harm's way. The government has cooperated with NASA and other agencies to serve and protect citizens.
Drones are also useful for search operations. We have all seen the pictures of volunteer groups and sniffing dogs combing the forest to look for missing people. Helicopters often join in the search from the air, but drones can be used for substantially cheaper.
The government also oversees space drones. Orbital Test Vehicles, such as the Boeing X-37, are robotic space drones. These space drones use a launching mechanism to send them in to orbit and later re-enter the earth's atmosphere as a space plane. Much information about space drones remains classified.
Build or Buy?
If the government can build drones, why not you? Well, it may not be quite that simple, but DIY drones are a popular option for civilians today. They are simply drones built by individuals rather than purchased off the shelf. An important question to ask is whether you are most interested in your need for a drone or the drone itself.
For example, some people want a drone to take aerial photographs. If your true hope is to own the pictures, you may have no desire to build a drone. There are many manufactured drones on the shelf that are ready to serve your needs without the hassle of building.
However, if you find the process of building and personalizing a drone just as enticing as taking and owning aerial photos, a DIY drone may be something to consider. Building a drone gives you the ability to make any changes you want and personalize the craft to meet your own preferences and needs.
When you are the one who designed your DIY drone, you will probably have a good idea where to look when it breaks or acts strangely. When a store-bought drone malfunctions, you have to learn about its inner workings from scratch.
Understanding Drone Science
It is important for a drone builder to have an overall understanding how a drone works and why it is going to fly. That person will always have a distinct advantage over the person who mindlessly follows directions from a kit and assumes it will fly in the end.
Drones are made of light materials to keep them from becoming too heavy to fly or too bulky to maneuver. The light composite material is still durable. The drone is controlled remotely from the ground. The control system on the ground and the actual unmanned craft make up the two central parts of drone system.
Users can keep track of the drone from the ground through a smart phone app or Ground Station Controller (GSC). Large drones, such as some military drones, can be the size of a traditional plane or other aircraft, while the smallest can be as little as two inches.
Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) drones, including quadcopters, are very popular drones that can take off and land vertically. They can fly in any direction and also hover in the air. Some VTOL drones include GPS technology or other form of Global Navigational Satellite Systems (GNSS).
Motors and Propellers
To launch, fly, and hover, drones need motors and propellers. A quadcopter VTOL has four four motors and propellers, one on each arm. Two of the motors power propellers clockwise, and two power propellers counterclockwise. The motors receive data from the flight controller and speed controllers that direct them to fly, hover, or otherwise maneuver.
Variations in the combination of propellers turning clockwise and counterclockwise affects the angular momentum. This allows the drone to turn in different directions based on the combination of propeller directions and speeds.
To attain a state of hovering, the four rotors, which are the propeller and motor combination, must provide upward thrust greater than the gravitational pull against the craft. When the downward gravitational pull is equal to the upward thrust, the drone hovers.
To make the drone descend, the exact opposite is needed. The propeller speeds slow causing the upward thrust to lessen. When the upward thrust is less than the downward pull of gravity, the drone will descend.
Air drag is the most common variable that slightly distorts the upward thrust versus downward pull idea. The relative motion of an object traveling through the air meets opposite forces known as air resistance or air drag that slow the object and make more precise adjustments to thrust necessary.
DIY Drone Parts
The DIY drone parts you will need to build your aircraft depend on the type of drone you choose to build. Based on your level of DIY experience and general ingenuity, you will have several options to choose from.
Types of DIY Assembly
Some builders use an Almost Ready to Fly (ARF) kit. DIY drone builders often like to use an ARF kit as a good starter project. ARF kits come with the major parts needed to assemble a drone, with many parts pre-assembled.
Another option for your DIY drone project is a traditional drone kit. Also known as a UAV kit, a drone kit includes most of the core pieces needed to build a drone. These kits vary, so the number of important pieces included as opposed to the pieces you will need to collect on your own depends on the kit you choose.
While the extensiveness of the kit is a matter of personal choice, buyers should be aware of the pieces included before purchasing a kit so they know what they will need to acquire on their own. Typical pieces not included in a drone kit are a transmitter, battery and charger, or controllers.
For the most ambitious DIY drone builder, a fully customized drone does not require a kit. Builders with an extensive understanding of drone parts and the science of flight can acquire all necessary parts from various manufacturers to create a custom aircraft designed to their personal preference and needs.
If you are ready to build, be sure you have the parts accounted for that you will need. Some of these parts may or may not be included in your kit, so make sure you know what you already have and what you still need based on your individual kit. While lists can vary based on the style of drone you plan to build and the DIY drone kit you choose, below is an inventory of some common components you will need.
A transmitter is an electronic component you will need for wireless commands using radio signals. Using a particular radio frequency, the transmitter sends commands to a radio receiver.
The receiver is another important part for your DIY drone. The receiver receives commands from the transmitter and sends it to the flight controller. This chain is how users control the drone.
The flight controller, sometimes called the FC, is like the central processing unit where the radio commands are received and understood. A circuit board within the controller helps sense the orientation of the drone and makes necessary changes in order to meet the commands of the transmitter-receiver system.
You will also need a drone frame. The quadcopter frame is one of the most common drones. It is controlled by four rotors. A rotor is a combined unit made up of a motor and a propeller. The rotors are controlled by the flight controller and balanced by the movement of the propeller blades.
Obviously, you will need propellers if you have a quadcopter or other propeller design. The propellers create thrust and torque to keep your DIY drone in the air. You will need propeller drive motors to turn the propellers. Thrust is created by moving air through a change in velocity, and the motors will serve this purpose.
Propeller adapters will be needed to hold your propellers firmly in place on the shaft. You never want to risk having your propellers come off in mid-flight.
Components You May Not Have Thought About
The aforementioned parts for your DIY drone are obvious to most people who have a basic understanding of drones. There are more parts to buy, and some of the following components are not as obvious.
Power distribution boards are needed to send power to the proper places, such as from the battery to the motors. In its most basic form, a power distribution board is a piece of copper with an input and multiple outputs to distribute power as necessary.
Speaking of batteries, you will need a lithium-ion polymer battery. These are easy to forget because many new builders assume they will be included in a DIY kit, but they rarely are. Lithium-ion polymer batteries are rechargeable and use a polymer electrolyte rather than liquid. Do not forget to put the charger on your list. Chargers for lithium-ion polymer batteries have built-in balancers that can safely charge four lithium-ion polymer batteries at up to six amps.
You will also need a battery adapter to convert an external power supply. A DC 12-volt power supply are very common and easy to locate. The 12VDC output is attained from 120VAC through the battery adapter.
A Step-by-Step Building Guide
While some general rules and ideas apply to almost all drone construction, your style of drone and choice of kit will add unique variables. Below are some universal steps for assembling a quadcopter drone.
It is common to begin your drone construction by assembling the frame. As the frame comes together, the pieces quickly look like a real drone, so beginning with the frame can be encouraging to new builders.
Assembling a quadcopter drone usually begins by attaching the arms to a solid frame plate. The required screws are likely included in your kit or with the frame you purchased individually. Once applied to a screw plate, usually under the arms, a second screw plate is applied to the top of the arms so that they are secured on the top and bottom.
Separate plates are installed that will eventually hold the motors. For a quadcopter, four mounting plates will be screwed in place.
Each arm also has landing gear. Based on your kit and style, you will need to attach the landing gear to each arm for safe and uneventful landings.
While assembling the frame, you installed four mounting plates. The four quadcopter motors will be affixed to the mounting plates using screws. You may also need to mount a motor shaft.
With all motors mounted to the frame and facing inward, you will need to solder the speed controllers. You should follow the kit directions to mount your power distribution board to the frame. The ESC wires will need to be cut to match the circuit board. It is very unlikely your kit included soldering supplies, so you will need to get some if you do not already have soldering equipment.
Those who have experience soldering will find this step much easier than those who do not. Intricate soldering of wires is a tough way to acquire the skill if you have not already done some soldering.
Once the wires are soldered and cool, be sure to give them a tug in different directions to be sure the soldering job was sufficient. You should not hear any cracking or similar noises.
You will now need to mount your receiver and be sure it has power, most likely five volts. The receiver will probably be powered by a 5-volt positive on your power distribution board. One wire will be saved for the flight controller.
The placement of your receiver antennas will be critical for a usable signal. The best place to begin experimenting is a 90-degree V formation. Finally, you need to bind your receiver according to the directions for your specific product. You will probably need to power on the device with a binding button compressed.
The controller is the brains of the entire operation and must be mounted as an integral part of your system. Almost all signal wires will be connected to the controller. There is very little uniformity among flight controllers, so studying the directions and schematic for your specific controller is critical.
Many manufacturers include wiring diagrams, and if you are new to DIY drone construction, we suggest you use a controller with a diagram or a similar schematic. All of your power wires, probably red and black, should already be soldered, Your only concern at this point are the signal wires.
Each motor should have a signal wire and an additional ground wire. A quadcopter would have a signal and ground for each of its four motors. You should also have one signal-in receiver wire.
Other possible signal wires will depend on your drone use. Some may have an On-Screen Display (OSD) if you are seeking FPV video. FPV is a first-person view and is attained by filming from the perspective of a pilot while the drone is in flight. OSD connectors likely include video in and out as well as grounds for each.
Other variables and options range from buzzers to help you find a list drone, much like a car key buzzer, to an assortment of LEDs that give you status updates as well as an aesthetic appeal.
Once you have tested your drone and all components are functioning properly, be sure to take time on the finishing touches. You have worked too hard to leave the final product with sloppy aspects.
Check all wire connections, loose wiring, and extra wiring. Be sure everything is taped neatly and securely. Consider using shrink wrap for better aesthetics and a tighter bond.
Decide what options and perks you need on your drone, such as camera mounts and attach appropriately. Be sure all screws have been tightened and your frame is complete.
Conclusion on DIY Drones
There is a rhyme and reason to almost every aspect of drone flight. Really, it is just fun science. The question is whether your mindset says getting there is half the fun or whether it says, "Are we there yet?"
Building your own drone has the potential to be a fun learning experience, and even if you start small, you will continue to learn and get better as you go. You'll also be equipped to make repairs on a design that you built.
DIY drones give you the advantage of customization. The more confident and adventurous you are, the more opportunity you have to think outside the box and personalize a drone for your own needs and preferences. You can also save a lot of money if you get good at building and customizing.
On the other hand, if you want to play with your new drone by the middle of this afternoon, DIY drones probably are not for you. This undertaking requires time and patience. Sometimes, even after the DIY drone has been completed, there is a period of adjusting and perfecting the aircraft.
Experience also dictates that buying a drone off the shelf allows for more aesthetically pleasing choices. Shrink wrap and electrical tape on a handmade drone have trouble stacking up to the machine edges and computerized graphics on an out-of-the-box drone.
There is no right or wrong answer when deciding whether to buy a drone or build one yourself. The best answer may be different for different people. Only you know your own skill set, desire to learn, and temperament. However, we believe this article will be a great starting point if you think DIY drone building may be something you are interested in pursuing.