At this point, I’m assuming you’ve seen some crazy video footage of insane tricks. First-person video of drones racing through trees, doing aerial ballet, performing high speed stunts, and sometimes even doing some risky moves like flying through moving trains. Some of these bolder pilots are garnering some negative attention for flying near buildings and bridges, but they also capturing the imagination of armchair pilots worldwide.
Dipping your toes into this world is not as difficult as you may think. And you can have an incredible amount of fun, even if you only fly at a local park, choosing not to risk prosecution for flying around private property and livestock.
There are a few ways to get started in this hobby -- going ultra-cheap, getting everything pre-built, and even buying used gear on Ebay. But the vast majority of FPV pilots build their own rigs. Crashes are a fact of FPV flying, so you’re better off building your drone from the ground up, learning each piece of equipment and knowing what to do when things break. When it happens, and it will happen often, you’ll need the skills to tear down your quad, repair it, and rebuilt it. If you already built it, you’re one step ahead. Also, if you put the time into building the quad, it might make you less likely to do something stupid on your first few flights, risking the loss of your precious.
So let’s get started with looking at what a whole FPV Quad system is, and what each of the components do.
The thing that actually does the flying is often called a few different things. Drone. Multicopter. Quadcopter, quad (cuz...it has 4 propellers) or Kwad, if you’re a hipster. It’s made up of several separate components, all bolted and wired up.
Quad frames take on many shapes and sizes, but they’re called quads because they have 4 arms, each with a motor mounted to it. Most quads arrange the arms in an X-like pattern and are mounted to a central body. Quad bodies are usually rectangular, some shorter and some smaller. The purpose of the body is to house all of the electronics and to provide a physical structure for the quad.
Flight controllers are the brains of the quad. They are definitely smarter than the pilot. Their job is to take all of the inputs, instructions from the pilot, motion from external forces like wind and momentum, vibrations, etc., decide what forces need to be applied in response, then send signals to each of the 4 motors to make it happen. And this is done thousands of times per second. The Rx is connected into the FC to send pilot instructions into the FC.
Flight controllers can’t do anything unless they’re connected to motors that spin props and move air. But they can’t do it on their own. Speed controllers sit between the FC and the Motor, and convert instructions from the FC into power sent to the motor to spin at a requested speed. They can also tell the motor to slow down quickly or brake. Speed controllers come in two main styles: 4-in-1 or individual. A 4-in-a ESC is a single board that controls all 4 motors and is mounted in the quad body along with the other electronics. Individual ESCs control one motor each, and are mounted on each arm.
Quads utilize electric brushless motors to convert electrical power into motion to spin props and move air. You can select motors for different applications such as raw power for racing, or something that’s less aggressive for more controllable, gentle flying.
Props are bits of shaped plastic that spin around and create airflow.
The flight battery is strapped to the frame, and usually powers everything on the quad. In order to distribute that power to all of the components, you’d use a PDB. Many flight controllers today are called All-in-ones (AIOs) because they combine the functions of a FC and a PDB in a single circuit board. PDBs send power to the flight controller circuits, the ESCs
This is a bit of electronics that is installed in the quad that receives instructions from the Transmitter. Receivers all have one or more antennas which need to be extended away from the quad’s body to improve reception and range.
FPV quads are miniature onboard cameras that generate a video feed to transmit back to the pilot, giving the sense of being on the quad itself. There are several different sizes to match up with different frame size. There are even special-purpose cameras for handling low-light conditions for flying at dusk or dawn, or in dimly-lit forests or buildings.
Camera signals are sent to the VTx, which then broadcasts the video on a channel. Video transmitters often have different power settings to increase range and penetration of the signal to help when you’re flying in and around obstacles, and they all allow for channel switching so you and your friends can fly at the same time without interfering with each other. To broadcast the video signal, you also need a specialized antenna. These aren’t the sexy bits, but some of the most important. In order to get a clear video signal sent from the VTx to your headset, you need a pair of matched antennas -- one on the VTx and on on the headset. You’ll often see them labeled as RHCP or LHCP, which are Right Hand and Left Hand Circular Polarization, respectively. At this point you don’t need to know much about antenna tech. You just need to know that your VTx and headset both need to have either Right Hand or Left Hand, or you’ll have a very bad day of flying...er...crashing.
Today, mini quads all fly on LiPo batteries. These are Lithium Polymer rechargeable batteries designed to dump a whole lot of energy into your motors over a short period of time. Since typical flights are less than 5 minutes, you’ll want to own more than one. If you’ve ever gone battery shopping, you can get lost in all of the numbers. But there are really just 3 attributes to pay attention to: the cell count (3s, 4s, etc.) determining max voltage, the capacity (measured in mAh or milliamp/hours) and the C-rating. The last is just a relative, often subjective description of how quickly the battery can dump its power. More on these, later.
This is all of the stuff that stays on the ground. Simple, right? Ground gear doesn’t fly.
This is what the pilot uses to control the quad. There are many different styles and manufacturers to choose from, but they all function the same way. They take input from the pilot with two sticks, and broadcast those instructions out to the quad. Each stick can send different inputs to the aircraft, but quad pilots typically used what is called Mode 2, which means the left stick controls the throttle and yaw, while the right stick controls the pitch and roll. Combining all 4 of these inputs allows you to move the quad through 3 dimensional space and position it 360 degrees on any axis. More on this when we discuss flying.
Once the video is broadcasting from the quad, you use a set of goggles, a headset, or even just a screen connected to a video receiver (not covered in this tutorial) and you can watch the video. Goggles are usually smaller and more portable, they have a screen for each eye, and are much more expensive. A box goggle headset is larger, more...boxy, has a single screen and can be less expensive. No matter which type of headset you pick, you’ll need to attach an antenna matched to the VTx antenna to receive a clear signal.
When you’re not flying, you’re either building or repairing, but you’re always recharging. So you’ll need a few things if you want to get into this hobby. At the end of this tutorial, we’ll provide a more comprehensive list, but every pilot needs these items. This is not negotiable.
Below is a list of each component in more detail, and some criteria for picking each for this build. We’ll step through some terminology and technical specs, and then provide a recommendation for each part with links to purchase.
Assuming you’re coming to this guide because you’re a newb, choosing a frame would be like asking a hungry dog to choose a treat. None of the nuance or differences in flight characteristics would mean anything to you. So here’s a rundown of some options that are typical for each frame type. While many frames can be purchased with longer or shorter arms to accommodate larger or smaller props, the standard arm size for mini quads is designed for 5” diameter props. So these are typically called 5” frames. So you may see people saying they’re doing a ‘6” build’ or they fly a ‘4” quad’. This is not the size of the frame, but an indication of the diameter prop they use. For a beginner, it’s probably best to go with an all-purpose Freestyle Frame.
Freestyle frames are used by both racing and freestyle pilots, though racers often try to minimize weight and maximize performance. What’s a freestyle pilot? This is someone who likes to fly around obstacles and open spaces, performing tricks and generally enjoying the experience of FPV flight, without the restriction of timers and competitors. They often strap another high definition camera to the drone such as a GoPro, for filming higher quality video to review and share later. Freestyle frames are designed to be durable, dependable, smooth flyers, with a body large enough to hold a secondary camera. Two popular frames are The ImpulseRC Reverb (and it’s grandaddy the Alien) and Lumenier QAV-R, which are very similar in geometry, simplicity and price. Both are very high quality and backed by excellent companies. These frames are not the newest design, but are a favorite of freestyle pilots because of their versatility and ability to swap out arms when they break or if you want to experiment with longer 6” arms with bigger props. They both share an X configuration with a long rectangular body in the center. The body of the frame is designed to be large enough to hold a top-mounted camera and battery, and many electronic components in the interior. They’re generally easy to build and maintain because there’s so much room to work with.
Other Frames to consider as an upgrade that use different layouts and geometry to achieve different flight characteristics:
For this build we’re going to be using a Betaflight F4, an all-in-one(AIO) Flight Controller that contains the standard FC features along with the PDB in a single board. This is not a TRUE all-in-one in the strictest sense because it does not put the ESCs on a single board, but it does make the build quite a bit simpler. There are many AIO boards out there, which can be swapped out without many changes to this tutorial. Some pads on the board may move locations, but the functions are practically identical. The functions we’re interested in are:
The FC I recommend is the Betaflight F4. This is actually designed and sold by the folks that make the Betaflight software. The layout is well-designed, and it’s a popular board. It’s slightly more expensive than some of the cheapest AIOs, but it’s worth supporting the folks who make Betaflight possible. Betaflight F4 by FPVModel (~$35)
Picking ESCs is not as critical as it used to be back in the “old days” (two years ago). They’re all pretty robust, and unless you’re a pro pilot with thousands of hours on the sticks, you will never feel a difference. But the features we’re looking for are:
Here’s a recommended set that tick all of the boxes, and are fairly inexpensive. Just be sure to buy 4: Speedix ES30 30A BLHeli_S ($11.99 ea.) - with support for DSHOT 600
Picking motors is like picking jeans. They all do roughly the same thing, but sometimes you find a set that just feel right. Sure, you need to get the right size, but even within a single size, there are variations in performance, cost, durability, etc. So you have to ask yourself one question. Do you feel lucky? Will you never crash? If you can say yes with a straight face, or have unlimited cash, then pick the expensive option. If you’re a mere mortal, spending more than $15 per motor for your first build is probably excessive. Also, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that more power is better. If that were the case, we’d all be driving Saturn V rockets to the local Mini-mart. You want some power to make it fun, but you don’t want to be fighting your quad’s power or you’ll never learn to control it.
Now, you’ll notice some numbers on motors as you shop around. They’ll say something like 2205 or 2304, and with that number you’ll also see another such as 2450kv. The first number is a description of the physical size of the stator - the thing with the coils around it. Bigger stators generally tend to have more torque. The number is actually two in one. For example, 2205 can be interpreted as 22mm diameter by 5mm height. So a 2306 would be 23mm diameter by 6mm height. The second number indicates a relative power rating and is technically the speed in RPMs at which it must spin to generate 1V of power. What? Motors don’t generate power! Maybe not your gasoline engine, but electric motors are basically generators in reverse. When you apply current, they spin. When you spin them, they produce current. So, if a motor is rated at 2300kv, that means it will generate 1 volt or 1v of power when it’s spinning at a steady rate of 2300 rpms. But what does this really mean? If you reverse that and could theoretically create two identical motors with 2 different kv ratings, they would spin at different speeds when given the same input voltage. To make a long story longer, if you want to fly faster, pick a higher kv motor. But with great speed comes great power consumption, so you’ll tend to draw more current, stress your battery more, and shorten your flight times. When you’re first starting out, a lower kv is best. When you want intense straight-line speed for racing, higher kv is sometimes more appropriate. But you’ll find that a lot of “freestyle” pilots like to use motors with a midrange kv that lets them do tricks while flying smoothly, since they’re not all concerned about top speed. The motors I recommend are:
EMax RS2205 2300kv - a slightly older motor, but reliable and still pretty popular, and can be regularly found on sale for around $10 ea.
Just like everything else, props come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Don’t be fooled by the pretty colors. They don’t impact performance. The main features of a prop are found in a numeric code. So you might see something like 5x4, or 5x4.5x3, with two or three numbers separated by x’s. The last number, which is usually omitted on a two-blade prop, means the number of blades. So a 5x4 is a two-blade prop, and a 5x4x3 is a similar prop, but with 3 blades. Here’s what the other numbers mean:
For this build, we’re only going to be considering 5” props, since that’s the proper size for the frame. You can go smaller, but that would just be silly. Props also come in many materials such as nylon and polycarbonate (often written as PC), with the latter being more flexible and nylon being stiffer. In crashes, a nylon prop will chip or break faster than a PC prop but the added stiffness translates to a little more power. PC props will flex more and can even be bent back into shape after a crash, within reason, but that flexibility can sap some power. So a PC prop is actually better suited to beginners because it’s more durable and dampens a motors power a little bit. And as you may have already gathered, as you get comfortable flying, you can change your props to get a little more power without needing to swap motors. Here are some quality PC props to try. Pricing is for a set of 4 props, 2 clockwise and 2 counterclockwise, which we’ll cover during the build steps.
I encourage you to buy a TON of props and to experiment with them. Every prop/motor combination has a slightly different feel, and there’s really no right or wrong combos, again within reason. So try out that 5150 3-bade prop with a crazy boomarang shape and see how it compares to a basic 5x3. Each set is less than the cost of a latte.
The choices for FPV cameras have really exploded over the past year or so, and the overall quality has improved. This is a good thing because now at a reasonable price, you can get a high quality cam that produces a great image. But just like props and motors, choosing the right motor for you can be quite subjective. You can go high-end with something like a Runcam Eagle 2 for around $45, that has a wide dynamic range, so the image is very good even when flying from shadow into full sunlight. But some pilots hate the image the Eagle produces because the processing algorithm can produce some artifacts. Or you can go with a very inexpensive camera like a Caddx Turbo Micro F1 for $20. I’ll leave this up to you to decide since they all fit in this build and work the same way. Here are a range of options:
In the FPV world, there has been some controversy over VTXs, because technically you’re not supposed to be using anything that broadcasts on specific frequencies and output power unless you have a HAM radio technician license. And VTx manufacturers overseas - mainly from China - are leaving it to the pilots to comply with these rules. Same here. I’ll recommend a VTx or two, but leave it up to you to decide if you want to comply with FCC regulations when you choose your frequency. The other considerations for picking VTx besides what it broadcasts are the following:
Prices for a cheap no-brand VTx can be well under $20, but may not be of the highest quality. In this case, I’ll be recommending a fairly expensive VTx that is reliable, can broadcast on all of the common frequencies, can be configured to output a signa from 25mW up to 800mW, and can be powered by direct battery voltage. It also supports a communication protocol called SmartAudio, that will allow you to switch channels and output power from the on-screen display.
TBS Unify Pro HV SMA ($50) - this version uses an SMA connector for your antenna. Another variant uses an RP-SMA connector. Both VTx versions are the same, but you need to make sure you select a matching antenna that uses SMA or RP-SMA.
A transmitter or radio is going to be one of your biggest expenses in the hobby, but the great thing is that you only need transmitter and it can be used for all of your quads, and even fixed-wing aircraft. The most popular transmitter in the hobby by far is the FrSky Taranis X9D. There’s another group of pilots that swear by Spektrum transmitters. The key point here is that each transmitter manufacturer makes different receivers, so you just need to match the Tx and Rx for your system to work. You can even get a modular transmitter that lets you buy modules that pop into a bay on the radio so you can switch protocols between vendors. In this tutorial, I’m going to stick with FrSky products since that’s what I’m using. Here are some options for FrSky transmitters:
Receivers can be confusing. If you go to the FrSky website, you’ll get lost in all of the receiver options, but that’s because they sell different models for different applications, including receivers meant for fixed-wing aircraft with multiple servos to move control surfaces. In this build, we’ll keep it simple. I’m recommending a single receiver that is small enough to fit in any quad build, provides excellent range, is relatively simple to wire up, and is very inexpensive:
FrSky XM+ SBUS Receiver ($13) With fixed wing aircraft that use servos, you would normally connect one signal wire to each servo on the aircraft. In the early days of quads, you would connect four servo signal wires, one for each channel to the flight controller - e.g. throttle, pitch, roll, yaw. FrSky supports a communication protocol called SBUS, which sends a digital signal for all flight axes over a single wire. So this means the Rx only needs to have power connected to it and a single signal wire, making for simplified builds.
Remember the jeans analogy I used for picking motors? Well, picking a headset is like picking underwear. You can get the top of the line goggles and spend over $500, but if they chafe and they don’t fit your face, your flying experience will be horrible. Even worse, if you’re fidgeting with the goggles, you’ll probably get distracted and crash. So short of trying out different goggles or headsets in person, there’s no way to be sure which will be the best for you. However, here are some features to consider:
So, what are some good options? The following are box-style headsets:
Here are some goggle-style headsets
There are many other options, and as long as they include a receiver on the 5.8GHz range, they’ll work with the VTx in this build.
Like so many parts of this hobby, selecting batteries can confuse a new pilot. I’m going to avoid a lengthy discussion of each feature and just say one thing. This build will support a 3-cell or a 4-cell battery. To start, you should always fly with a 3-cell, since it will result in slower speeds and less power. That’s not to say SLOW speeds, but simply slower speeds. Once you’re comfortable with a 3-cell, you can immediately put your quad into high-gear by switching to a 4-cell. You’ll also want to stick to a 1300maH or 1500mAH battery as it will provide a decent ratio of capacity-to-weight and will fit the frame nicely. And you should stick with something around 40C or higher. This last number is never really a reliable indication of throughput, but merely a relative measure or guideline. Something lower than 40C may feel too sluggish. With all this being said, here are the batteries you should pick from:
You can decide how much you want to spend but you really should have no fewer than 4 batteries to begin with. This will give you a combined 12-25 minutes of flight time (~3-6 minutes per pack under moderate flying), which is good for a single session. Plus, be aware that crashes can damage batteries, making them unusable, so you should make sure you have a few backups so you’re not waiting by the mailbox after a single flight.
Building a quad is more like baking a cake than assembling a lego kit. You’ll need some basic soldering skills, a bunch of other materials, and some patience. So even after ordering all of the components above, you’ll need the following tools, not just to build the quad, but to repair and upgrade it. I’ve broken it down into the Must Haves and Nice To Haves to make this easier for you to prioritize.
Soldering station or soldering iron - this is going to become your best friend, or your worst enemy, depending on what you buy. It needs to be a smaller iron with a chisel tip designed for electronics. You’ll need something that can heat up to around 400 degrees celcius, and looks more like a pencil than a gun. If you get one of those heavy duty soldering guns that’s bigger than a hair dryer, you’re going to make a mess of things. If you don’t have anything now, here are some inexpensive options as well as my favorite iron, the TS100:
Solder - Do not use any old plumbing solder. Do not use lead-free solder. Use 60/40 Tin/Lead rosin-core solder. If you can find it, pick up some 63/37 instead. It’s easier to work with and tends to give you a better solder joint.
Drivers - no, not your chauffeur, but things like screwdrivers, hex drivers and wrenches. At a minimum, you’ll need a few different sizes of hex drivers to assemble your frame, along with a small philips-head screwdriver, and a 8.5 mm hex wrench for prop nuts.
Cutters and pliers - you’ll need at least a single pair of needle nose pliers and some wire cutters. Specifically, you should get some small side cutters or angle cutters that you’ll use to trim wires and strip wiring insulation.
Multimeter - without a multimeter, you’re gambling that all of your solder joints are clean and correct, and that there are no defective components. With a multimeter, you can test continuity, which means that you can ensure that there are no obvious shorts or crossed wires. Once power is connected, you can also test that the proper voltage is being supplied by individual pads on your boards before you even solder any accessories to the PDB. The quality of these components is usually remarkably high, but it just takes one defect and a fraction of a second to fry multiple bits of hardware.
Vinyl Electrical Tape or Silicone Tape - this is used to secure and protect ESCs and motor wires. Electrical tape is cheap and widely available, but silicone tape is my preferred method since it leaves no residue on your frame or components, and it doesn’t use adhesive, so it won’t peel over time.
Zip Ties - having a mix of small and larger zip-ties is necessary for securing components to the frame and acting as antenna supports.
Heat Shrink Tubing - you’ll need this to insulate some solder joints, and to secure and cover your Rx antennas.
Double-sided foam tape - this is used in several locations to both insulate components from each other and the frame, to provide a way to keep things from moving around in flight, and to dampen a tiny bit of vibration.
Silicone Conformal Coating
Silicone insulated wire
Loctite Blue - quads are riddled with vibrations and every landing is a little jarring. Loctite on your motor and frame bolts keeps things from getting loose over time.
Charging and Safety
This is an opportunity to familiarize yourself with the frame components and the learn how it comes together. It helps in planning the placement of each of the electronic components and to make sure you’re not missing any of the included hardware.