Flying quadcopters is an expensive hobby. Flight controllers, motors, ESCs, batteries, and frames are not cheap. Regardless of whether you buy or build, it will probably cost over $300 to get started, with another $100 or more being spent every few months on upgrades and replacing broken or worn out parts. So, is it better to buy a kit with everything included in one package or assemble a quadcopter using parts built or purchased separately? For me, a DIY build is the best. Continue reading to find out why…
Kits are great for people who don’t have much time to spend understanding which components will work well together. The components in a kit are usually carefully matched and pre-soldered making them easier to build. They may also appear to be cheaper at first. Often, when you add up a similar configuration of parts purchased separately, the kit looks cheaper. The catch is that the kit contains parts that are only made by the manufacturer. So, when you go to buy replacement parts they are much more expensive than generic off the shelf parts. By the way, crashes inevitably happen and parts do fail.
Also, while the parts in a low end kits may be carefully matched, they may be poor quality parts or parts without many features. The flight control board is the most important part of a quadcopter. To get advanced features such as auto leveling, axis lock, altitude lock, position hold, or gps with way points, you will have to buy a very high end kit. From what I can tell, it is very expensive to buy a kit that has anything more than gyro stabilization. Read my post on gyros vs. accelerometers to understand the importance of this.
Conversely, when you build from a collection of parts that you purchase separately, it will take more time and perhaps even appear to cost more initially. However, it will be much cheaper to replace a part since you have lots of choices and are not forced to buy a part made by the kit manufacturer. Also, you can buy and configure any flight control board with whatever features you require. This gives you total flexibility of which features you need and want. It also allows you to change boards as your demands change. The following blog posts may help if you decide to do it yourself:
- How Much Does it Cost to Build and Fly a Quadcopter?
- Flight control boards and their capabilities
- Selecting motors and props for your quadcopter
- Selecting Electronic Speed Controllers (ESCs).
- Quadcopter Wiring
Update – 1/6/13 Also, here is a series of blog posts about an easy DIY quadcopter I built:
- Easy DIY Quadcopter Build (Part 1) – The Parts List
- Easy DIY Quadcopter Build (Part 2) – The Build
- Easy DIY Quadcopter Build (Part 3) – Setup
- Easy DIY Quadcopter Build (Part 4) – Tuning
- Easy DIY Quadcopter Build (Part 5) – Video
The Frame (Buy vs. Build)
Even if you decide to build your own quadcopter using parts purchased separately, you may want to get a frame kit. This way, you will know it is engineered correctly and you can still equip it with whatever parts you want.
The DJI F450 and the Q450 from HobbyKing are very low priced, durable frames that make great starter frames. HobbyKing also sells an even lower cost version of the Q450 without a built in PCB. This frame requires a separate wiring harness. These frames are so cheap it hardly makes since to try and build your own unless you just like to tinker.
Higher end frames are much lighter, but still tough. The HT-450 from HoverThings is one of my favorite frames and is reasonably priced.
Building your own Frame
I have had a lot of fun building my own quadcopter frames. It is not that difficult and doesn’t require a lot of special tools or materials. However, it does take a lot of time and precise measurements. If you are pretty handy, have a drill or drill press and a hack saw or miter saw, building your own frame is the way to go. Here is my post on building a frame for under $10.
Frames can be made with lots of different materials. At a minimum, you will need some screws, center plates and arms.
Center plate material needs to be rigid, tough and light. I have been using plexiglass discs I bought off ebay, because it is really cheap and looks cool. G-10/FR-4 Epoxy or carbon fiber plates are lighter and probably stronger. But, they cost more and may have to be ordered from Asia to get the best price.
Quadcopter arms can be made of wood, aluminum, or carbon fiber. Again, strong, rigid and light are the characteristics to look for. I have been using wood. It is not very tough. Wooden arms will easily break in a crash. But, it is so cheap and easy to get that I don’t mind replacing arms when they break. I will probably experiment with aluminum and carbon fiber arms soon. Aluminum will bend in a crash, but it is also fairly cheap. Carbon fiber is probably the best alternative for everything, but it is also the most expensive and harder to find. To get carbon fiber cheap, it must be ordered from Asia. On the other hand, wood and aluminum are usually easily sourced locally.
Everybody has different budgetary and time constraints. For those with unlimited money and little time, kits are the way to go. But, for those of you, like me, who are on a tight budget and enjoy the fun of building stuff, I would suggest DIY all the way!