Interestingly enough, the first robot I ever built used RC helicopter parts. Eight years later, I can’t help but feel the least bit nostalgic when I look back at one of my first documented projects. But, anyway, that’s why I own a 6-channel radio.
Generally untouched for the last eight years, I decided to finally put it to good use. One afternoon on Google and $250 later, I had (almost) ordered all of the parts I needed to build a quadcopter. Here’s how I built it and some of the things I learned along the way.
Full disclosure: many of the parts I chose were based on looks, price, and HobbyKing ratings. With that in mind, there are many, many different options when it comes to buying quadcopter parts. My advice would be to either follow a build guide from someone with more experience, or to spend some time doing your own research to figure out what parts are right for your build. Here’s my list in no specific order:
The nice thing about this part list is that it does not require you to cut/solder any of the ESCs or motors if you do not want to. This was good for me as I wanted some flexibility in changing the layout wiring of my quad. Here’s all the parts stacked awkwardly on my desk:
I started by wiring up all of my ESCs to the power distribution board I bought so I could quickly test to make sure each one was working
Next I started building up the frame (not using the integrated PCB in this case)
Mounting the motors to each arm (don’t forget the loctite!), orientation doesn’t matter at this point
Now is when orientation starts to matter, and knowing what to look out for would have saved me a few props and several hours of debugging. The motors I bought are pairs of CW/CCW motors, which makes them self-tightening if used correctly. If they are not in the correct orientation the locknuts will unscrew themselves and your props will fly off without your quad. A few results down on Google is this great blog post explaining how to identify which motor is which, and where they need to go on your quad. If you do not mount your motors correctly you will have to take them off and reattach them in the correct position.
Once you have identified each motor you can start attaching the arms to your frame.
You’ll notice that the frame I have is symmetric before the baseplate is added meaning you will have to arbitrarily chose a side to be the front.
I bought the power distribution board on a whim, but it ended up simplify a lot of the wiring and work needed to get this together. I would definitely recommend getting one if you are not comfortable soldering.
Here you can see how I mounted the board using the standoff screws (with more loctite!).
Once I had the frame put together I could give more thought to how I was going to wire everything up. I started by attaching some small pieces of double-sided foam tape to each arm to hold an ESC. The Afro ones have bullet connector leads so attaching them (and swapping leads) was easy. It is at this point I should mention that if you are using a more permanent method of attaching your motors to your ESCs, you must be sure that your motors are spinning in the correct direction according to the diagram I showed earlier. If they are not, you will have to swap any two leads to reverse the direction.
All wired up to my Naze32 and AR6200 for testing!
Standoffs and double-sided foam tape are your best friends. I should note the standoffs I’m using are actually supposed to be the legs in this kit. Please note the direction of the little gold arrow on your Naze when you are mounting it as this will be important later.
Satellite mounted and ready for testing!
I added 10mm red and green LEDs powered from the unused motor pins to help me identify the front and rear of the quad. Also they look cool.
There are lots of choices for flight controllers that I have not looked at. I am using cleanflight. I’ve found it to be well-documented and very straightforward to use. I followed along with this YouTube video which walks you through many of the basics of setting up a new quad as a beginner. I would recommend starting with that and, if you encounter any issues, to then look for other resources once you have completed the basic configuration. I will not go into too much detail about my specific settings as these will vary based on transmitter, receiver, and personal preference. When watching the video, I do suggest putting the ARM control on something that you feel comfortable hitting frequently as that will cut power from the motors if you need to quickly stop your quad. One other thing that caught me up for a while was that my channels were not correctly mapped e.g. hitting throttle increased AUX 1. To fix this you can input a custom mapping.
The next thing to note that is not in the video is that there is a default orientation on the Naze32 board. In order to check your orientation, find the little gold arrow silk screened on the top of the board. Consult this guide here to adjust your orientation. If you do not configure your board correctly your quad will not fly and you will have a bad time.
I spent a good amount of time troubleshooting and debugging even after watching the video so do not worry if you still have unresolved issues. The Naze32 board and Cleanflight platform are both very popular and already have a great deal of resources for you to consult.
That’s it! Your quad should be ready for its maiden flight. Make sure your LiPos and transmitter batteries are at healthy levels and take it out for a spin. I would be very, very cautious when first testing your quad as there may still be undiscovered issues.
Hopefully this little walkthrough gave you a better idea of what it takes to build and configure a quad for flight. This is by no means and in-depth overview covering each and every step however, if you are thinking this doesn’t look very hard then you’d be in a good position to jump in and figure out any remaining problems on your own.
I haven’t had the chance to make too many flights but I do plan on putting out another post with some footage and upgrades I have in mind. As always, please reach out if you have any comments or questions. I hope you found this somewhat useful, if not the least bit entertaining. Stay tuned!