There's a lot that goes into choosing the components when you're building your own multi-copter, as we saw in our last article outlining the components. Now that we're ready to start building, we run into a whole new set of challenges. We have to make sure everything works together!
This is my first build, which is why I wanted to walk everyone through it, because it's the most honest build article I could create, letting everyone know the same issues, concerns, and questions I had. So to just get started, I wanted to lay it all out, make sure everything looked like it was here, and ready to go to work on. As I progressed, there was always something small I was missing.
To start things off, let me run you through my components.
Quadrino Zoom V3 Flight Controller
This flight controller is based off of the MultiWii and Arduino boards. It's very open source, and there's a lot that can be done with it. It also pairs nicely with a GPS module for it, which was a huge plus to me. As for multicopter layouts, this little flight controller seems like it can take on just about anything with up to eight motors.
It also has the ability to monitor your battery, control your gimbal, and has the ability to monitor altitude as well as various other options. Just getting started, I'm not too sure how much of this I'll take advantage of right off the bat, but I like that this controller offers a lot of room to grow with me.
If you want to check it out, you can read more on it at flyingeinstein.com.
SimonK ESCs from Lumenier
I wanted SimonK ESCs since everywhere you read tells you that your life depends on them. It's not that drastic, but the SimonK firmware does have some improved performance, which can make a real difference. These were jointly developer with SimonK himself, and come highly recommended.
The SimonK ESCs can handle 23 amps at max continuous load, and work well with 2-4S Lipo batteries. They require a little bit of soldering to add battery connectors as well as connectors for the motors (unless you just want to solder everything directly), but that isn't a very big issue. I'm expecting some pretty decent usage out of these ESCs.
If you want to check them out, you can find more information on them here at getfpv.com!
Tiger MT2212 Kv980 Motors
For the motors, we wanted something with some nice power, so we went with the Tiger MT2212 Kv980. The Kv isn't through the roof, but it doesn't need to be since we're using 10" props. Our goal is lower RPMs with higher efficiency. If you're looking for a stunt flier, you might want to go with more powerful, but we're looking to get as much battery time as possible.
The Tiger MT2212 Kv980's work well with 3S or 4S batteries. As noted in the name, have a Kv of 980, which if you don't remember, is a comparable measure to their RPM. These are a popular upgrade for 450 frames, and can mount right onto them without any modifications. If you need it though, they also come with a mounting bracket for larger frames. If you'd like to read up more on these, head over to montorc.com, where we've found the site to be extremely helpful with everything you'd need to know!
F450 FlameWheel from DJI
This frame supports an X-Quad build and up to 10" props. DJI is well known in the industry and makes a range of ready to fly systems. Their FlameWheel kits comes with almost everything. They include the frame, motors and speed controllers. If you're looking for an upgrade kit or a barebones system to get you moving in the right direction, it's hard to go wrong with these. You'll need a batter, flight controller, and radio rx/tx, but everything else will be there.
The frame feels pretty sturdy, the arms are a hard plastic and the body is I believe a thin metal. The lower plate has a power distribution board build into it for the ESCs and two platforms for cameras. The arms also comes in two colors, so that when you're flying, you can see which direction copter is moving in. The F450 is an extremely common frame and it's not hard to see why. Just a quick check on Google will speak directly to its level of success. Not knowing a lot coming into this, this felt like a great place to go. If you'd like to check out more on this frame/kit, you won't be wasting your time!
RC Timer Gimbal from MultiRotor Super Store
This is one thing that I am looking forward to in particular. One reason to have a quadcopter is to enable you to shoot some cool videos that you can't typically get anywhere else. This gimbal comes with a gimbal controller, and can balance the tilt on its own, so you'll only need to focus on the direction you want to point the camera in. Even better, this one fits a GoPro perfectly. It has vibration dampeners, can run on a 2S battery, configures over USB and comes with some decently quality motors. Well worth the money.
I did run into some issues with the provided documentation, specifically, there wasn't any! A quick google search cured that though. This is a hugely popular gimbal. It's light weight, and from what I've been able to pick up on, it's pretty easy to configure, but we'll save those notes for the next article! I picked up my gimbal from multirotorsuperstore.com. Since then, they've stopped carrying this gimbal, but have moved up in their components, and have a pretty nice variety on their site. They're definitely worth checking out.
LiPo 3250 4-cell 14.8v Battery Pack
We wanted a high end battery for this adventure. I've been reading everywhere the differences on batteries, what to expect to get out of a battery but really, despite everything I could ever read, until you get it up in the air, you don't know anything for sure. The battery we picked up from MaxAmps.com is 4S so it provides a nice charge to everything and with a 150C rating, should be able to provide any burst of power we could need. Now for the duration, that's where mAh comes into play. This battery is rated at 3250 mAh. I don't know what my exact draw on the battery will be with all of the components I'm putting on it, but I'm hoping I can really get a lot out of it.
I mentioned I got this from maxamps.com, their batteries are gaining a really solid reputation for themselves, and their staff are really knowledgeable. If you'd like to check out their inventory some more, it'll be worth it!
Attitude V2 from FatShark
This was one of the more exciting components we received. This isn't a flight necessary component as all, but it lets us start to have some real fun. The Attitude V2 is a FPV system that comes with a camera, transmitter, and video goggles with a built in receiver. The video quality of the camera isn't anything to write home about, but it is more than enough while flying. The convenient part about this component was that it came with a power adapter for 2S-4S batteries. It connects to the Balance plug of your battery, no soldering required, hooray.
The only down side to this unit was that the headset still needs power. So I did order a separate battery to power that. It's a little tiny 7.4v 1000mAh battery, but it comes with the adapter already wired. Tired from all the soldering, this felt like the perfect thing to get. If you'd like to check this unit out, we recommend it!
5.8GHz 25mW Video Transmitter and Uno5800 v2 5.8GHz A/V Receiver
Taking it a step further from FatShark and FPV system, I picked up a video transmitter and receiver and a pair of enhanced antennas from ImmersionRC.com. The benefit to this is that I'm able to record video on the ground, I'm also able to have a ground station watching everything.
The downside to this is that it will take a little more soldering. I will need to create connectors that plug into a camera and connect to power for the transmitter. For the receiver, I'll need to wire up a battery for it. Regardless, this should really enhance everything I'm doing with the quadcopter, and give it some more use just beyond zipping around the yard.
If you'd like to check out the Transmitter, Receiver, or Enhanced Antennas from ImmersionRC.com, they should be worth a read. This site has a lot of useful information, even noting regulations on transmission powers.
FlySky FS-TH9X-B 2.4G 9CH Radio System
This is one area that should take a lot of research. Everything about a quadcopter is it's own component. They can all be upgraded, from the motors to the frame, everything is a changeable component, except the radio controller. These cost a fair amount of money and will typically stick with your build longer than any other component.
In my research I was told to go with at minimum a 6 Channel radio. You'll typically need at least a 5 channel radio, but six would give you the extra option of adding "something" later down the road. Then I found the FlySky 9 Channel controller, and even better it was affordable! It comes with everything too, which is even better, so none of it should need to be configured. Now most people probably won't agree with me on this point, but I also like that this controller runs on AA batteries. I'm tired of looking for battery packs for things. None of the connectors are the same. Battery dimensions change frequently, and everything needs a different level battery, and guessing on the right mAh to last long enough... AA sounds good to me.
Starting the construction
So now it's time to start mounting the components and wiring all the connectors. Nothing is entirely universal, this is truly a DIY field. First things first, I need to get comfortable soldering. Next, I need to become even better friends with Google. Nothing has much documentation on it for some reason, and most of the documentation has an assumed level of knowledge getting into this. Information for everything is out there, and it's all over the place, except packaged with most of the components. No one on any of the forums considers themselves an expert, but compared to me, all of them are. Luckily the multicopter community is among the most helpful communities I've come across. All of these guys have been in the same position, and all of them can answer questions that you run into.
Constructing the Frame
That was the logical place to start. The frame is the basis for everything. Because I went with a very established frame, this is an incredibly easy task. The frame has two plates to connect components. The lower frame has a basic power distribution board built into it and two platforms for components. The arms are a hard plastic with small legs that give little clearance below the bottom plate. This is the easiest step, 24 screws hold everything together, and this quad copter takes shape.
Solder the Connectors
In preparation for the battery, it was time to wire up the power distribution board. I haven't had to solder in forever, but forunately, I won't have to solder anything intense. First things first, lets prepare our connections. The battery comes with an XT60 female connector, so I'll prepare a shore length of wire with a male XT60 connector. Melt a little solder and let the wire soak it up, then melt some solder in the connector and place your wire in there. Hold the wire and connector in place while it cools, which should take just a few seconds.
Now you'll want to add some heat shrink, slip this over the backs of the open wires, and over the connections with the exposed solder. You can get a heat gun, or just use a lighter. Make sure to rotate the plug with the heat shrink so that heat is applied evenly. It'll shrink tightly over your connection, keeping it protected. If you do this with a lighter, be careful not to overdo it, heat shrink is pretty easy to burn.
To solder the wire to the board, melt a drop of solder to the connections on the board. Then place your wire in the melted solder, making sure they can both cool in place. You should now have your battery connector in place. Repeat this process for all of the Speed Controllers as well.
Mounting the Motors
This was the next easiest step. The motors fit the same mounting holes as provided by the DJI FlameWheel. If not, these motors did come with mounting brackets, but they won't be necessary today. I pictured this so far with the motors and propellers, but the propellers are coming off after this, they're going to get in the way while building and I don't want to chance breaking one while building it. Honestly, the propellers shouldn't go on until I'm prepping for flight.
Mounting the Speed Controllers
Having already soldered the connectors, this is a pretty simple process. Because there is no official place for these, they typically get mounting under the arms, secured with zip ties. This time around won't be any different. I opted to use XT60 connectors with my speed controllers simply because I'd like everything to be changeable for the long term. Unsoldering a few spots on the power distribution board wouldn't be any kind of big issue, but if it can be avoided, then that sounds better to me.
Mounting the Flight Controller
This is going to be my biggest challenge. The frame I have doesn't have any holes that match the mounting holes on my flight controller. So this is where I need to think outside the box a little. After some thought, I decided the best approach would be to use one of those ancient CD cases that people used to buy blank CDs in, from back before people streamed their music.
This will give me the option of adding the cover to the enclosure, giving it a bit of extra protection from the elements and any crash landing it may take. The enclosure has some comfortable clearance from the blade, so I mark some pilot holes to mount it to the frame, then more pilots to mount the board. I'll use some standoffs to attach everything. I'm also going to take a large bit and slowly drill out the center pin in the CD case, then smooth it out by hand and run some of the cables through the hole it leaves, keeping everything looking very clean.
This turned out to be a lot easier than I expected it to be. I picked up some nylon screws, washers, and nuts. I also used some spacers in there in the process. I marked the holes that lined up on the frame and repeated the process for the ones in the flight controller. Drilled the holes and everything mounted very easily.
Mounting the Landing Gear
Now that we're nearly flight ready, I want to add a few of the cooler items, specifically the gimbal. The only problem is, the F450 has a very low level of clearance, and has almost no room at all for anything to be mounted below it, let alone a gimbal. So I needed to find some landing skids. I wanted something that wouldn't get in the way of the camera, and after a bit of research, I saw the ones that DJI makes to accompany the F450 had led to cracked frames in a number of rough landings. So I bought some that weren't intended for my frame, but looked pretty close. The fit wasn't perfect, but I'm tightening them in place with zip ties, and I'll be coming back and adding some tennis balls to them to give them an even softer landing pad. If I feel like I need to, I'm pretty open to using some epoxy to make them a permanant addition. I really liked these because they're very far out from the camera. They give me a great deal of clearance from the ground, they felt adequately strong, and cost next to nothing compared to some other landing gears I've seen out there.
Mounting the Gimbal
This gimbal was a real challenge, it looks like it's got it all, but the thing comes with no documentation at all, which makes it a little bit of a challenge. The gimbal is produced by rctimer.com, and even on their own site, they only linked to other sites for documentation. Luckily, everyone else is more of an expert than I am. From seeing pictures floating around online, you can get the physical construction pretty easily.
This gimbal comes with minimal wiring. You'll need to solder the wires to motors. There are notes about updating and flashing the firmware to the latest, but I'll save that for the next article on configuring. As for power, luckily this one says it works great with 2-4S Lipos as well, so I'll need to find a connector and wire it to the main power, or find a cheapo 2s battery that I can just throw in there. I may wind up making a new mounting bracket for this one as well.
Mounting the Fat Shark FPV System
I tested the FPV system before hand, and it's pretty cool to try out for the first time. It's almost disorienting how well you see things moving around without actually moving yourself. Once I finished having some fun though, it was time to hook it all up. This is going to be secured with zip ties. It's small and light so I don't think it'll need anything serious to hold it in place. I'm also planning to play a bit with the best positioning for the camera, so I'd like to be able to quickly move it around.
The only component that will be maintaining its position will be the transmitter. This is going to be mounted underneath the rear platform. I will secure it to the frame with zip ties as well. This makes it easy to keep the antenna down and out of the way of the propellers. It also lets me keep the board fairly open it. Just testing it around the house, I noticed that it got somewhat warm, around 150 degrees Fahrenheit, so I wanted to make sure I wasn't sandwiching this anywhere that wouldn't have decent airflow.
Mounting the Radio Receiver
This was a simple one to mount. On the rear of the frame is a platform that I chose to mount the receiver to. I chose zip ties for this as well because it's a very light component. I also wanted the option to potentially move this around in the future too. One thing worth checking though is making sure that the antenna can't reach the propellers. Of all the causes for a crash, this one should be pretty avoidable.
Power it all up
Now it's time to power it up, and this is where I feel like I'm a little in the dark. There are certain things that I just don't know a lot about. Luckily Google as well as the multicopter forums out there are great places to go. Quadcopters aren't a low budget hobby to just walk into, so you're working with a decent investment, and honestly, there are a lot of warning labels. Batteries can catch fire if charged incorrectly. Motors can burn out if the batteries aren't right, and pretty much everyone out there will say, "Be prepared to crash, a lot".
Everything is all wired though and I've been double checking everywhere to make sure it's wired correctly. I've tested the components that I can, and I have made sure everything looked good. So now it's time to plug in the battery for the very first time....
I also want to give a special thanks to all of our sponsors on this project!!