Introduction: How to Build an FPV Drone (under $150)!
Let me read your mind..hmm..umm..well, you just watched some crazy footage of a dude doing some insane tricks on an FPV racing/freestyle drone, and now you WANT it. You want to build an FPV drone and fly around and do crazy tricks, but...you dont know anything about FPV drones. Questions such as, 'what parts do I need?', 'Is there an easy kit for beginners?' and 'would I be able to do it with limited knowledge of electronics and drones?'
Ok, Im done reading your mind, the good news is, the answer is YES to all the above questions.
So lets not waste anymore time and get into it.
Dude, who are you , Ive never heard about you.
A fair question, after all, Im not Johnny FPV, or Joshua Bardwell, so why should you be listening to me? Well, if you havent seen my Youtube channel, 'Fungineers', I have been building stuff for almost 10 years now. From Arduino based projects to Electric Skateboards, and even a DIY Onewheel, that you can check out here!
Recently, a new bug bit me, the FPV bug, and I have built half a dozen drones in a span of 3 months!
Luckily, for those of you who are not readers but rather learn by watching (which I recommend), can see the whole playlist of videos with step by step tutorials to build your own FPV drone here
If you are still reading, then this is where the journey begins. Lets talk about the basics of an FPV drone and the parts needed.
Step 1: What's an FPV Drone?
How is it different from a DJI Mavic/ Non-FPV drone?
The way an FPV drone is different from a normal (Mavic type) drone, is that it is a "manual" drone. Just like the difference between driving an automatic car and a manual car, or a bicycle with training wheels and without training wheels. While a DJI-type drone auto-levels and holds its altitude automatically, an FPV drone has to be controlled manually in all aspects, i.e. its altitude, rotation and speed.
The other difference is obviously that is is FPV (First Person View). The pilot flies it while looking through a set of FPV goggles that receive the video from a camera onboard the quad.
Why build an FPV drone?
If your goal is to only get slow, dreamy cinematic footage of some mountains or landscapes, DONT BUILD AN FPV drone! Buy a DJI Mavic or something similar which is beginner-friendly and usually equipped with higher res cameras. The reason people build FPV drones is the FREEDOM! It allows them to have absolute control over their drones, and to go in any direction/rotation/orientation and produce stunts, and participate in ultra-highspeed races. Some drones like Cinewhoops can also be used to make slow, cinematic footage, so you see? It gives you a lot of freedom to build whatever contraption you want for a particular day or feel. Sounds like fun?
However, I must warn you that flying an FPV drone needs a lot of practice and patience (I practiced many hours on a simulator before taking my first flight). And it can take months of practice before you can do flips and rolls and crazy maneuvers. The upside is that once you learn it, nothing compares to it in the amount of adrenaline it shoots through our veins!
Step 2: Can I Just Get a Pre-assembled FPV Drone?
Ok, maybe you are not the type that wants to solder, and attach wires and troubleshoot stuff, can you get a 'kit'?
Absolutely! There are tons of RTF (Ready to fly) drones that you can buy-n-fly.
The most common RTF drone is the Tinyhawk, that is a little indoor drone that you can fly around the house to get into FPV, and if you like it, you can cone back and build a bigger drone!
If you are worries that a little drone wont be as much fun as the 'real deal', then you are mistaken. I thoroughly enjoy flying my Tinyhawks and Mobulas even to this day, both indoors and outdoors. They are fast, the are robust, and they are a ton of fun and great for beginners and professionals alike!
Check out the awesome Tinyhawk II here (make sure you buy the whole kit with controller and FPV goggles).
I did explain the different options and have a whole list of different drones you can buy (starting from $99) here.
However, building your own drone is a rewarding and a great learning experience. If you build one, chances are that you will be able to repair it yourself or replace the broken part easy and cheap, because lets face it, you are gonna crash..a lot; that's the only way to learn.
So are you in? Let's do this!
Step 3: What Parts Do I Need?
Ok, since you are still reading, it looks like you are determined to build your own FPV drone. Congratulations on getting through.
There are literally thousands of configurations you can build a drone, and dozens of sizes you can build it in, so that makes it hard to point out one single list of parts. The good news is, from my experience, I have put together a list of parts that are perfect for beginners and are budget friendly too.
Here is what each part does, how much it costs and where to get it:
The body of your quad. There are many budget options. Imo, the best budget options is the $25 HSKRC:
If you have some extra cash to spare and want a sleeker looking frame here is the $50 iFlight Nazgul. One of my favorite frames in terms of quality/price ratio
Motors can be complicated, there are so many to choose from and different kVs and rpms. Luckily, I have selected the best budget motor for you:
The Emax ECO II (Please choose 2400kv):
Flight Controller & ESC:
Out of everything listed here, this is probably the best deal! The Mamba Stack of Flight controller + ESC is my favorite budget pick:
Pretty decent camera for $16:
Vtx (Video Transmitter):
Unbeliveable $9 Vtx:
Your Vtx also needs an Antenna (need only one):
Depending on your Radio, buy the compatible Receiver.
If you have a Frsky (Taranis) Radio/Transmitter (recommended):
Buy lots (since you're gonna crash and break lol)
I recommend 4S batteries on 5 inch quads. You will need lots of batteries (since each one would last 5-8 minutes).
Get at least 4 of these batteries:
You need a charger to charge your batteries:
You need some straps to hold your battery in place:
That's it for the quad, and here is where the $150 budget ends (we might be over because of the batteries and charger). What's below, is an investment in your FPV journey. These are the Radio (Transmitter) and the Goggles. To start, lets look at some budget options. Later on, you can think about upgrading to DJI FPV system.
I recommend the Taranis radio:
You can start with these $50 goggles, and upgrade a few months later:
A Good Budget Soldering Iron
AWG16 Silicone Wires, XT60 Connectors, Zipties, M5 Wrench to tighten/loosen motor screws, M2 and M3 screwdriver to build the frame.
All the parts you need, are neatly listed in a google sheet here
Step 4: Assembling the Frame
Alright, you got all the parts? Lets start building.
First thing is to build the frame. Nothing much to say here. Just follow the instructions in the video and building the frame should be a breeze.
Step 5: Soldering the Electronics
This maybe hard for some people.
Its best to get a printout of the Flight controller pinout diagram, and trace out what you are going to connect.
There are basically 3 'systems' to be connected (soldered): The Camera, the Vtx, and the Receiver.
Basically each system has 3 wires: 5V to power it, Ground, and Signal. You would want to connect these to the Flight Controller on the corresponding pads.
Watch the video, as I explain step by step how to connect the different systems to the Flight Controller, and some soldering "tips" (no pun intended).
In the next step we will connect the ESC and the power cables.
Step 6: Soldering the ESC to the Motors
This could require some fine soldering skills.
If you have a 4in1 ESC (which is in the parts list), you can directly connect 3 wires of each motor (in any order) to each side of the ESC, and you are done!
If you have 4 small ESCs, one for each motor, you can connect the 3 wires from each motor to one side, and connect the 2 power wires from the ESC to the flight controller, with an additional little white wire as well.
Watch the video to see how this is done.
Step 7: Powering Up for the First Time
Once you have snipped some wires and connected it to the + and - of your flight controller on one end, and a female XT60 connector on the other end, you are ready to power your quad.
CAUTION: LiPos are extremely dangerous. A single LiPo battery has the energy density to set your house on fire! Extreme care and caution must be taken when dealing with Lithium batteries. Make sure you have connected the + and - properly. Make sure they are not reversed or touching each other. Check with a mulitmeter for any shorts between the + and -
It is highly recommended to use a smoke stopper.
Please be careful, your safety is the most important thing. without it, nothing is worth it!
Ok, if you connect your battery (if you didnt buy a battery yet, you can plug in a 12-16V DC power source (from a power supply). Once you connect it, you should hear 5 beeps (watch the previous video for instructions) and you should see some LEDs start to blink on your Flight Contoller. If that doesnt happen, or you see smoke, disconnect the battery immediately and retrace your steps. You must have shorted some wires.
Once you have successfully performed this step, we can now connect our receiver, bind our radio, and be ready to configure our Flight Controller in Betaflight on the computer!
Step 8: Radio Basics
Ok, we are ready to connect our Receiver to the flight controller and bind it to the Radio, but it is important that we learn some Radio basics first.
A Radio or a Transmitter is what you use to fly your quad. There are 4 modes, we use a mode 2 radio (means throttle is on the left stick, and directions are on the right stick.
The Throttle makes your quad move up and down
The Yaw, on the same stick makes your quad turn its head, kinda like you do to look around.
The Pitch makes the quad go forward and backward, and the yaw, makes it go left or right. In the video above, I have a very easy explanation for these basic terms.
Step 9: Binding Your Radio to the Receiver
Your receiver comes with 3 connections 5V, Gnd, and SBUS. These are connected to your FC as such (as shown in the prevoius video about soldering stuff to the Flight Controller).
Once the receiver is connected, we can bind it to the radio.
Just power on the quad, and you should see the receiver turn on. Also turn on your radio, at this point, it should show no signal. Press the button on the receiver for 3-4s, and after searching, your radio should show full signal and it is now connected and talking to the receiver. Thats it!
The radio and receiver are now talking, and the binding is done. You only have to do this one time! So now, you can ziptie/glue/bolt your receiver to your quad and mount your antennas properly (shown in the video above).
Step 10: Connecting and Configuring the Vtx
A lot of people are confused with the Vtx, since there is a lot of data associated with the vtx. The power levels, the bands, frequencies, channels, etc.
I explained it in detail in the video above, but here is a crude explanation:
Power level (mW): This directly determines how far you can go. The greater the power level you run the vtx on, the better and further the signal can travel. However, your vtx will run significantly hotter with greater power level!
Usually, I run it at 200mW for short range flying, and freestyle practice sessions.
Band: A band is like a small area that you are allocated, so that you dont interfere with the person flying a quad next to you (this was a real problem in races back in the day!). So you can select a band, and let others know so they select a different band (if you are flying alone you dont need to worry).
Channels: Within bands, there are different channels, so 8 people can run on the same band, but on 8 different channels.
At this point, you can power it on (DO NOT POWER ON YOUR Vtx WITHOUT AN ANTENNA) and power on your goggles, and search for the channel the vtx is on, and the goggles should show on its screen what the camera is seeing. Congratulations, your video feed is setup!
Again, detailed explanation can be found in the video above.
Step 11: Connecting to Betaflight and Programming Your Quad
Your hardware setup is complete (except for bolting on the propellers which we will do later), but you still have to configure your flight controller and your ESCs.
For this, we use 2 software:
BlHeli for configuring the ESCs
Betaflight for configuring and programming the Flight Controller.
Both software are free and open source!
There are 2 versions available, full version and a chrome app. I prefer to use the chrome app since its quick and gets the job done!
So just download the Chrome app for BLHeli Suite and Betaflight, and we should be good to go.
Connect the Flight Controller to our computer via a USB cable. Now open Betaflight and click the Connect button on the top right, and you should be able to connect your quad and see a bunch of new tabs and a new window open up. If your flight controller is not connecting to the computer, you probably dont have the right drivers.
First, download the CP 210 driver and the STM Vitual COM port driver and install them on your computer.
Now, try to restart Betaflight and try to connect your Flight controller to Betaflight. If all is correct, it should connect now, and on Betaflight, you should see a new page with a quad and some options on the left.
The complete configuration can be found in the video above where I show Betaflight setup and BL Heli setup.
Once done, we should be able to spin or motors via our Radio! Basically, at this point, we can go out and fly..but wait..
Step 12: Setting Up the Arm Switch (and Other Modes) on Your Radio
Before we can do any flying, it's very important to set an arm/disarm switch on your quad. This would be like an on/off button.
This is easily done on betaflight in the Modes tab. Make sure to double check after a switch is set.
Its also helpful to set the Horizon/Angle/Acro mode switch on a 3-way switch.
I also set a Failsafe switch and a Beeper switch.
The entire setup can be seen in the above video.
Step 13: First Flight (not on Your Quad)
Not only do I highly recommend practicing on a simulator, I think its essential.
When I built my first FPV drone, I didnt practice on a simulator. "How hard could it be", I said to myself.
IT was a disaster, I could hardly keep the quad in the air for more than 10 secs, and ended up having numerous crashes and lost my vTX antenna.
The point is, a simulator would be cheaper to get ($16-20) and practice on, than going out and breaking your quad that you worked so hard on.
Once you are comfortable with a sim (I took about 10 hours to get it), you can go out and fly!
Step 14: Bolting Props to Your Quad
we haven't bolted our propellers to the quad yet...and I purposely left it for last. Why? Because there is a special way to bolt the props. As the image above shows, the props are meant to be bolted down in a certain CW (clock-wise) and CCW (counter clock-wise) orientation.
Make sure you mount it as shown in the video.
Once the props are mounted, lets take the quad out flying!
Step 15: First Flight (finally!)
Ok, its fly-day! yayy!
First thing is to get your battery out (make sure its charged to 4.2V) and connect it and strap it down. Wait, before that, make sure your Radio is turned off! You dont want props spinning as soon as you connect the battery.
These props spin at a very high speed and can cut through your fingers!
The battery should be strapped properly; make sure all wires and connectors are out of the way of the props and secured properly, last thing you want is to get your props chopping your battery leads.
Now step away from your quad a couple feet, and push the arm switch. Your quad should now arm, i.e you should see your propellers spinning. Yuhoo! congrats.
If your props are not spinnig, make sure your throttle is at the lowest, and try again. Sometimes it takes a couple of tries to arm. Still not arming? Turn on your goggles and wear them, and try to arm. You should see the warning that is related to this no-arming error.
Once you figure out, your quad should arm now at the flick of the arm switch and disarm when flicked back. Practice this a couple times. Now, try to arm and give your quad some throttle, and should start to hover, if this doesnt happen, increase throttle. If the quad still doesnt leave the ground but you can see motors spinning faster, or the quad just flips over and crashes whenever you blip the throttle, then you have bolted your props incorrectly. Go back to the previous step and re-bolt your props.
After this is done, you should be able to fly your quad up and down (make sure you are in Angle mode; highly recommended for beginners). Try to maintain throttle and keep the quad level in one place, once you are comfortable try moving forward and backward and left and right to get a feel of the sticks.
After a couple of days, its time to put on your goggles and fly real FPV!
Step 16: Final Words. Going Further...
By now, you should be getting good at flying. Perhaps you are having a lot of crashes? That's normal. Just keep practicing flying (in Acro mode) and you will get better with time. Make sure you order spare motors, props, nuts, quadcopter arms, escs, etc., because I hate to break something and then wait for 2 weeks until it ships.
Well, that's about it. Now its up to you to go as far and wide with this hobby as you can. If you read the whole thing, thanks for sticking around!
When you think you're a good pilot, and want to stay in the hobby, its time to look into the DJI FPV system, and get better goggles, radio, and equipment. But for now, enjoy what you have built!
If you do follow this guide and build your quad, I would love to see it!
Hit me up on the Fungineers Youtube Channel, or on instagram @fungineerstech