Why should you buy a Ready-to-Fly (RTF) drone when you can build your own model? One of the RTF advantages is that you can take to the skies straight away—with minimal fuss. But RTF quadcopters typically cost more than kits. Other choices are Almost-Ready-to-Fly (ARF), and Bind-and-Fly (BNF).
OK, let’s look at those last two options before we move on.
ARF and BNF
An almost-ready-to-fly drone is just that. An ARF kit means the user must at least do some assembly before their model can fly. You may also need to buy a controller separately depending on the deal. The manufactures sometimes refer to ARF drones as DIY (Do it Yourself) projects. ARF copters should cost less than their RTF counterparts. Users also get to customize ARF craft, at least in part.
Bind-N-Fly (BNF) means users need to connect their RC drone’s receiver to a controller. The user must buy the controller separately as it’s not part of the kit. The drone usually arrives intact with a BNF arrangement. The advantage of BNF kits is that you can save money if you already have a compatible controller. The other benefit is that you can choose the best controller for the craft.
Build Your Drone from Scratch
You now know your RTF from your ARF and BNF. To get any of these options airborne requires no or minimal effort. To build a copter from scratch, though, is an entirely different ball game.
DO NOT BUILD a drone if the only reason is to save money. Drones are easily affordable these days, so it’s not worth the hassle. DO BUILD your own drone if you love to tinker and want to learn the ins-and-outs of what makes these puppies fly. It can be a truly rewarding experience.
The Cost of Building a Drone
There are as many choices for building a drone as there are buying them pre-assembled. It depends on what you want, need, and expect. Stick to something basic if you’re a complete novice. You can move onto bigger, more sophisticated projects once you gain some experience. It’s entirely possible to construct a basic quadcopter for less than 100 dollars.
Choose How to Build Your Drone
You need to know what the end model is going to be before you decide to build a drone. There’s no point putting together a highly-sophisticated craft if you’re a beginner pilot. Likewise, you don’t want to assemble a toy if you’re an expert flyer. That’s unless you want to grasp the building basics before you construct your dream flying robot.
Kits come in three flavors, namely:
- Ready-to-build kits
- Custom kits
- Parts kits
A ready-to-build kit is perfect for the novice. It has all the parts and instructions you need to make a drone in one handy box. Think of it as a drone jigsaw. Custom kits are for the more adventurous or experienced hobbyists. You source each part separately to build a craft of your design or to follow a pre-written plan. These can be simple play drones or complex First Person View (FPV) models.
The third option is for the highly-experienced or ambitious builder. Some hobbyists like to make parts to create custom pieces—the ground-up approach. An example would be to build a homemade frame. Frames are typically metal, plastic, or wood. They are the foundation of every unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). There’s a special section on frames and other parts toward the end of this guide.
Essential Parts to Build a Drone
The first thing to decide is what kind of drone you want to build and then choose a frame. The frame is your foundation so it must be right from the start. They come in four types:
Quadcopter (four arms and the most popular)
- Tricopter (three arms)
- Hexacopter (six arms)
- Octocopter (eight arms)
Below is a quick list of the seven essential components required for any drone project of any size. I’m going to use the popular quadcopter as an example and to keep things simple:
- 1 x 4-armed frame (see above)
- 4 x motors
- 4 x propellers (2 x clockwise, 2 x counterclockwise)
- 4 x Electronic Speed Controls (ESC)
- 1 x flight control board
- 1 x radio transmitter and compatible receiver
- 1 x battery and compatible battery charger
All the above parts come in different sizes, strengths, quality, and capabilities. A custom-built drone can have many extra add-ons too. There are options to upgrade as you gain more experience. The basics of each drone are the same, though. The most important thing here is to make sure all parts are compatible. Parts compatibility won’t be an issue if you buy a pre-prepared kit.
Tools You Need to Build a Drone
Having the right tools for the job makes everything so much easier. The good news for hobbyists is that the toolkit is small and basic. Here’s what you need:
- A decent set of hex keys (choose sizes based on frame requirements)
- An 8mm (M5) nut spinner or nut ratchet
- Pair of wire cutters/strippers
- A quality soldering iron and some solder
That’s your toolkit. If you’ve never soldered before, don’t worry. There are plenty of helpful video tutorials on sites like YouTube. A few other necessary bits include heat-shrink tubing, cable ties, and some nylon standoffs. Get some electrical and double-sided tape too, and Loctite (thread locker).
TIP: Don’t try to build your first drone without a full parts lists and detailed instructions. You can put a custom plan together once you become familiar with each part and its vital function.