Building Your Own Multicopter


There are many ways to approach getting a multicopter. For example, you could buy a ready-to-fly copter, such as the popular DJI Phantom (Available here) which does not require much (or any) assembly. You could also build all the way from scratch by designing and engineering your own airframe and electronics.

On this wiki page, we present a list of parts for building a custom multicopter from off-the-shelf parts. This kit requires some moderate assembly, but is low cost, flexible, and easy to modify. This is not as complex as a "build from scratch" kind of thing, it's more like a "Hot Rod" approach to multicopters.

Read this note before you get started with this project. Most of the parts listed here are hobby-grade and manufactured cheaply in other countries. So in other words, don't expect warranties, safety certifications, or even instruction manuals in English. Also, check to make sure it is legal to fly in your location, be mindful of safety, and please don't be a nuisance. These are experimental, home-brew aircraft, so please take the appropriate precautions.

Control Board


The control board is the heart of your multicopter. You need 1 for each multicopter. The choice of control board is the most important choice for building a multicopter. Recommendations:
  1. ArduPilotMega (APM) - This control board unit is the best value in terms of functionality-per-dollar and is the recommended "all-purpose" platform for a DIY multicopter. It is open source, extremely flexible in configuration, and provides telemetry, mission planning (autonomous waypoint navigation), a wide variety of configurable flight modes (for everything from acrobatic flying to stable-and-simple flying , and much more functionality. The best deal is through RCTimer, which sells a "clone" version for about half the price of the original 3DRobotics system along with a compatible GPS and Telemetry unit. You can find even cheaper clones from other places like HobbyKing, etc as well.
    • RCTimer - v2.5.2 for $119.99 w/ GPS+Telemetry. Sold as "ArduFlyer-UAV". You should also buy the case from RCTimer. May require some minor assembly (just soldering the header pins on)
    • 3DRobotics - v2.6 for $159 bare, $239 with GPS+External Compass, $338 with GPS+External Compass+Telemetry.
  2. 3DRobotics PixHawk - This control board is the successor to the ArduPilotMega and in fact can run the same ArduCopter firmware on board. However, it is much more advanced. It has a much faster 32-bit microprocessor, a realtime multithreaded operating system, and much more input/output (e.g. CAN bus, SPI, etc). This autopilot is recommended for users who have robotics and software development experience and want to do stuff like writing mission plan scripts in Lua, develop custom robotics algorithms, do more sophisticated sensor processing, or integrate the autopilot unit with another control board. You might also be interested in it just because it's the latest-and-greatest open source platform. Either way, it's a little bit more expensive and requires more experience to set up.
    • 3DRobotics - about $279 incl. GPS and Compass
    • Clones of the PixHawk have shown up in-the-wild, e.g. at GoodLuckBuy for $128. YMMV - these clones are not well tested yet and may be an inferior product. However, at almost half the price, it might be worth a try.
  3. DJI NAZA - If simplicity, and smooth and stable flight is your number one priority (e.g. an aerial video workhorse), but you don't care about things like waypoint missions and programmability, then the NAZA is an excellent choice. NAZA is uncomplicated, easy to fly and tune, and has reliable position-hold and altitude-hold characteristics. It doesn't have as many features as the open source flight controllers, but you can count on it to perform mostly as advertised. To give a computing analogy, if ArduCopter is the "Linux" of multicopters (open source, flexible, DIY), then NAZA is like the "Windows" of multicopters (plug and play).
    • NAZA-M Lite - Available for ~$169 from IntelligentUAS including GPS.
    • NAZA-M V2 - Available for ~$479 from IntelligentUAS including GPS, iOSD and BTU accessories.
  4. OpenPilot REVO - This is one for those who really want more control of the flight characteristics of their aircraft. If you are a custom builder who made a wacky new frame design that APM or NAZA can't handle out-of-the-box, or an acrobatic pilot who wants to do flips and stuff, or just super-picky and like to tweak and tune everything to perfection, the REVO is probably for you. It is a somewhat different breed of open source control board, which packs modern hardware and I/O functionality like the PixHawk but in a significantly smaller footprint. It has integrated telemetry, and an open source firmware which was written from the ground-up to take advantage of its fast 32-bit processor. It's also got the most friendly configuration GUI / Ground Station software around. However, it's not as mature as the other platforms - so be warned, it's not perfect for beginners.

Power for Control Board



Here's some recommended configurations. There's so many tradeoffs here, if you have a question please do ask in the forums. For a beginner, the quadcopter is smaller, safer, less expensive and easier. Robots break, so consider getting some less expensive first, then upgrading when you're ready for more. The DJI Flame Wheel style frames are recommended because they're cheap, durable, amenable to many applications, and easy to modify.

The configurations above are optimized for price. However, they are flexible:

Be careful. Lithium Polymer batteries that are typically used in radio control hobby aircraft like these are more hazardous to handle than regular batteries you may be used to. Always buy reputable brands (look for recommendations from other users) and make sure you read warning labels and follow safety procedures when using these types of batteries. This is what happens when you don't use the right settings on the charger.

Battery LiPo Charger



There are several reputable manufacturers of props: DC DUG users report that GemFan and APC are good brands. Graupner E-Props are excellent, but costly (and overrated). Below is a listing of props that are known to work well with the motors listed above.

For RCTimer ~1000kv Motors:
For DJI Motors, be careful to get the correct type of props for your motors, they have keyed shafts!)

Radio Control Tx / Rx


Choosing one of these is like choosing a car. There are many different brands and models. A cheap one will get you from point A to point B, but investing in a good one is a better idea in our opinion.

Characteristics of a good radio:
Recommended Radios:

Telemetry


If you are using an APM or a PixHawk and it did NOT already come with a data link or "telemetry" radio, you will want to purchase one. Even if you are not going to use it in-flight, it comes in supremely handy for configuration and tuning.
If you are using OpenPilot it comes with the telemetry on-board, but it is 433 MHz which is not FCC legal unless you have a HAM license. Unfortunately you will have to wait for the 915 MHz version of OpenPilot if you want to use it legally in USA.

You can also use your RC transmitter's telemetry features if it has them. For example, Spektrum sells a variety of telemetry equipment that you can use to get real-time status of your copter relayed straight to the RC transmitter. For many applications (such as those not requiring mission planning) this is more handy than having it relayed to your PC. Check whether your particular RC transmitter supports telemetry.

Minor Parts You Will Need


When getting started in this, you will need a lot of little things, such as wires and connectors to hook everything up. You can buy some at a DC DUG build workshop / build party event from another member, but here's the list:

Mandatory Tools


You don't have to have a whole workshop to get started with this. But you do need a few metric hex screwdrivers, a propeller balancer, and a few other things:

Optional Tools


These are recommended tools, but you could live without them.

Notes about shipping times


Some of the vendors take longer to ship than others. Please take this into account when you are ordering!

Other Parts


Feel free to ask in the DC DUG Forums whether other members have parts or tools for sale!
Also see Christopher Vo's list of parts for sale - ChristopherVoPartsForSale
DC Area Drone User Group