Drones (quadcopters) are big fun, especially FPV ones ! I have a lot of them and always have fun flying.
However they can easily cost a lot of $$ and break easily, plus they all look the same. I wanted to have a quadcopter that does not look like others, something unique ! something that I designed and made ! So I 3D designed and printed one :)
In this Instructable, you'll learn how to create your very own flying quadcopter for less than $100 from A to Z using 3D printed parts !
You'll learn how to design it, how to print it, how to add the electronics needed and how to configure it for its first flight.
Note: You don't need to have a 3D printer to complete this project, you can design your parts in 3D then 3DHubs to find someone to print them for you!
Tools needed :
- 3D modeling software (many are free)
- 3D printer or 3DHubs account
- Soldering iron & wire
The electronics part list is located in Step 3
Building time: About 5 to 6 hours
Difficulty: Medium, no particular skills required (except soldering)
Step 1: Design Your Drone Frame in 3D
The very first step will be to design your quadcopter: how do you want it to look !? this is the part where you can let go your imagination ! every design will work as long as it follows few basic rules.
You can design it in one single piece, or with a main body with detachable or even retractable arms!
The flight controller that we will add later will work with any design, as long as the motors are on the same, flat level (for basic quadcopters) and making a H, X or + shape overall.
I designed mine using Autodesk 123D design but any 3D modeling software will work !
While designing my mini quadcopter, I kept in mind that I only have a tiny 3D printer (the Mini Fabrikator) which has a build area of only 8cm*8cm. However this was not a problem at all ! I designed a main body with detachable arm where each piece will fit on my print bed.
Detachable arms also have an advantage: if you ever crash your drone and break an arm, you'll only have to 3d print a spare one instead of a full frame.
Frame shape (Picture 1)
Here are the most common frame shapes for quadcopters, you can design your drone starting from one of them, or you can go creative :)
Most frames are composed of 2 plates, separated by standoffs from 15mm to 35mm. A lower plate, where the flight controller and all the electronics are usually mounted, and an upper plate to close everything up. Arms can be mounted both on lower and upper plates.
Frame size (Picture 1)
The frame size is measured from the center of the front left (or right) motor, to the center of the back motor of the opposite side (front left to back right for example).
Here are the most common frame size of mini FPV racing quadcopters:
- 280mm - This is the bigger end of Mini FPV quadcopters, this size will allow you to use 2204 to 2306 motors with propellers up to 6".
- 250 mm - This is the most common frame size for racing drones, usually a great compromise between small size and bigger motors. You'll be able to mount 22XX motors on this frame size and usually 5" propellers.
- 200 mm - This a smaller size for FPV drones, most common in freestyle drones because it is lighter and smaller, but you'll also be able to mount 22XX and up to 5" propellers.
- 160 and 180 mm - Now these are smaller drones, they are great for smaller places to fly, like a backyard or small parks. They usually fit motors size from 13XX to 18XX and propellers up to 4"
- 150mm and below - The smallest FPV quadcopters, they are great for flying in tiny places, smaller ones such a 120mm are even great for flying indoor ! they can fit a maximum motor size of 13XX and 3" propellers.
You don't have to aim for a specific frame size when modeling your drone (it can be 167mm for example), just make sure that you choose your motors and propellers according to the size of the drone you built.
What to keep in mind when designing your drone
- Thickness: no matter what, you will crash your drone. So it is important to design it thick enough so it won't break at the first crash. For example, for the center parts of your frame, if your frame size is above 150mm, you'll want to have at least a 3mm thick on your plates. Same thing goes for the arms: I highly recommend to got for 4mm minimum thickness of arms. Arms will be the first thing to break in a crash so don't hesitate to add supports to make them stronger as you can see in my design.
- Motor holes: Choose the motor size you'll mount before designing your arms so you can directly add the holes pattern to mount them in your design. The holes pattern are usually described on the product page of motors, for example, the DYS motors feature the hole pattern of each motor size on their website.
- Flight controller mounting area : most flight controllers we are going to use have 4 holes for mounting on the frame, they usually represent a 31mm x 31mm square with each hole being 2 to 3 mm in diameter. It is best to place the flight controller on the center of your drone.The Flight controller must be on a flat, level area!
- FPV Camera area (optional) : If you want to equip your drone with a FPV camera (funniest way to fly), you'll want to keep an dedicated area (and window) on your frame, especially since FPV camera a oriented for looking upwards, it would be inconvenient if the camera is looking at the top plate.
- Battery area : we usually mount batteries using straps on the top or bottom of the drone, but it is great to keep in mind where you'll want it to be mounted and make sure that you have room for it.
- Fancy bonus stuff: it is your drone ! you can add anything you want : battery camera holders, FPV antenna holes, battery strap holes, a beautiful canopy or anything fancy !! this is what will make your drone unique :)
Step 2: 3D Print Your Drone !
Now, the fun begins !
It is time to print your drone and see how it looks IRL, but before doing so here are few recommendations for printer settings and filament:
You'll want to have a drone that won't break easily, so it is best to use higher infills (50% or more) so it will be stronger. It will be a little heavier but the motors we'll use won't have any problem lifting it.
What I usually do is print my central frame area at a 60% infill and the arms at 80% or more.
In fact, any filament will work, but some have advantages over others:
- PLA : I printed mine using PLA because it is the easier filament to print with my Miny Fabrikator. The main advantage is that it prints easily and it is pretty stiff, so the frame will be stiffer and won't bend with the thrust of the motors. However it will break more easily than ABS or PETG when crashing.
- ABS : The advantage of ABS is that it is stronger than PLA, it is also a bit more flexible so it won't break as easily as PLA in case of a crash. However it is more difficult to print, and not everyone is equipped to print ABS.
- PETG : An alternative to ABS, PETG is stronger than PLA and is also a little flexible, which means that your frame will not break easily. It is also pretty easy to print with and it is non toxic. However due to the flexibility, make sure that your arms have reinforcements to make then more rigid so they won't bend with the thrust of the motors, which would result in less efficiency, control and reactivity.
Finalizing the print
I used the pause and swap filament method to have a dual color frame which I think looks good :)
Once your print is done, don't forget your hardware, we usually use M3 screws and nuts for putting the pieces together.You can choose to print the standoffs or event a full enclosure ! Or you can get some online for really cheap.
Great ! now you have your frame and you're ready to mount the electronics !
Step 3: Add the Electronics
Don't worry ! it is not as difficult as it seems, it is actually pretty easy if you know how to solder (that's all you have to know but it can be learned easily:) ).
You can get all the parts from online stores like Banggood, eBay, Hobbyking, Aliexpress, Gearbest and other Drone shops.
Here are the parts you'll need:
- 4 motors - Prices start at $7 per motor - Use brushless motors, size will depend of your drone, my drone is a 160mm so I use 1306 - 3100 kv motors. The first two number (1306) is the diameter of the motor, the two last numbers (1306) is the thickness of it. The KV indicate how fast the motor will spin, it is usually higher on smaller motors. The lower KV the greater torque, the higher KV the greater RPM top speed. Link to some motors examples.
- 4 ESC - Starts at $5 per ESC - The Electronic Speed Controller will control the speed of the motors, you'll want to choose ESCs according to your motors specifications. 2204 motors will be best with 20A ESC (the as the Favourite littlebee), smallers motors (1306) will be fine on 10A or 12A ESCs. They are 2 main firmwares for multirotor ESCs : SimonK and BL Heli. I prefer BL Heli because they are easier to program. On this drone, I used Multistar 10A BL Heli ESCs I got from Hobbyking. But on bigger drones with 2204 my favorite ESCs are the LittleBee 20A.Link to some ESCs.
- Flight Controller - Starts at $13 - The brain of your drone. For a 3D printed drone, or FPV racing drone, I recommend using either Naze32 or CC3D flight controllers. I personnaly prefer Naze32 because they have more options for configuration but both will work. Naze32 also allows you to program the ESCs if directly through the flight controller which is very usefull. The software to use with Naze32 flight controllers are either CleanFlight, BaseFlight or BetaFlight (all free) and CC3D will use OpenPilot (free too). I chose a Naze 32 Rev 6 flight controller I got for $13 from Banggood. Link to some FC.
- Power Distribution Board or BEC - starts at $3 - A power distribution is actually not mandatory, but is recommended for a clean setup, it will distribute power from battery to the ESCs, flight controller, camera, VTX etc... PDBs have BEC integrated which means they'll have a 5v output somewhere to power up the Flight controller. Note that your ESC might have integrated BECs to power up the flight controller, but most of the performance ESC are OPTO which means they don't have BECs. If you have OPTO escs and decide not to use a PDB. You'll need a 5V BEC to power up the flight controller.Link to some PDBs.
- A Radio & receiver - Starting at $50 - This might be the more expensive part, although you might already have you if you're an RC enthusiast. Make sure that your radio have at least 6 channel and a PPM / CPPM receiver, which is much more convenient than standard PWM receivers. I use a FlySky Fs i6 with a ia6B receiver, the package cost around $50 and it is a really great and cheap radio. I actually prefer it to some very expensive Taranis I have too.FlySky FS i6 radio + receiver
- Battery Cable & connector - $2 - To be connected to your PDB, the most common connector for baterry is a XT60 male. For the cable, choose a cable that is not to thin and will easily handle twice or more the max voltage of your battery.
- A camera & Video transmitter(optional) - Starting at $15 for camera & $12 for VTX) - If you want to fly in FPV, then you'll need a camera and 5.8Ghz VTX. There are a lot of different cameras, CMOS, CCD, 600 to 1000 TVL etc... the choice will be up to you. There are also a lot of different size. Since my drone is very small (160mm) I used a micro 600Tvl camera that cost around $10. For the VTX, the best one in my opinion in the Skyzone 200mw 5.8 VTX, it cost $12 and works really great, it is also pretty small. Note that camera/vtx combo also exist for around 30$ and in a super small size. Don't forget the antennas if you got with a FPV drone, you'll also need some FPV googles or monitor and a receiver of course. You can have very descent quality googles + receiver for $70 now ! Link to some cameras examples.
- Propellers - starting at $2 for 4 props -For strengh issue, it is better not to print the propellers, altough ABS printed propeller would work just fine. Grab propellers according to the size of your quadcopter. My favorite propellers and the one I use are the DAL prop, either the DAL bullnose or DAL V2 props, both 2 blades and 3 blades version. They are almost unbreakable and will hold a ton of thrust.Link to some Props.
- Hardware - $1 - In order to mount the Flight Controller and Power distribution board (if you have one) to your frame, Plastic M3 screws & nuts can be very handful. They are better than metal ones because they won't create any short circuit on the electronics. A full box of more than 180 plastic M3 screws and nuts can be purchased for $5 on ebay.
Installation & wiring (Picture 1)
Once you got all the components needed, you just have to put everything together ! and it is almost as simple as plug & play !
This wiring diagram will help you to see how you should connect everything together but I will also describe the connection in bullet points :
- Battery wire to PDB battery input
- Motors wire to ESC: there are 3 motors wire to be connected on the ESC, how you connect the wires does not matter, it will only affect the rotation sens of the motor, but this can be change when programming the ESC if you have a BL Heli boot-loaded Esc
- 4 ESC positive to PDB (or battery, although not recommended) positive and 4 ESC negative to PDB negative.
- 4 ESC signal to Flight controler motor output 1 2 3 4 signal. The order of the motors will depend of your flight controller, a motor number diagram will be available on the software of your FC (Openpilot, Cleanflight etc...)
- PDB 5V output to Flight controller, the 5V input on the FC is actually on the motor output (6 of them) pins. So just choose a pin to connect the 5V input.
- Flight controller, Positive (5v), negative and PPM (Ch 1) Signal to Receiver.
- PDB 5V output to your camera
- PDB 12V or more (depending on your VTX) output to your VTX.
- Camera Signal to your VTX
Thats it ! it's all you need to fly !
Recommendation: do as much direct soldering as possible, that is to say avoid unnecessary connectors, they will be a potential point of failure and take up a lot of space especially on smaller frames.
Step 4: Configure Your Drone With Your PC
Now that all the hardware is set up, you just have to configure your drone and it is pretty easy !
I won't make a full tutorial on how to set a up a Naze32 or a CC3D Flight Controller in order to stick to the main 3D printed drone topic but it is very easy, the software used have set up wizards and you can easily find tutorials on google or youtube.
I'll will give you the basics though :
Depending on your flight controller you'll need to download one of these software:
To connect your Naze32 to your PC you'll need a micro USB cable
For CC3D : OpenPilot(Make sure to download a release supporting CC3D)
Most of CC3D board use mini usb cables, but newest ones might have micro usb slots.
For both Flight controllers, you'll a need to driver that will recognize the FC when connected to your PC, here it is:
I went with a Naze32 and Cleanflight since I find that it is the quickest and easiest way to set everything up.
The first thing to do when connecting your FC to your PC is to Flash the latest NAZE firmware. To do so: connect your FC, open CleanFlight (DO NOT CLICK CONNECT YET) and click on "Firmware Flasher" then select the latest naze release, enable the "full erase chip" option and click "Flash Firmware".
Then disconnect the FC, plug it back on and you'll be able to click "Connect" and head onto the configuration of the Flight Controller.
The procedure with OpenPilot will be pretty similar, once you are connected, OpenPilot offers a setup wizard, just follow it and you'll be fine.
Programming the ESC is not mandatory but is highly recommended, to do so you'll need to download BL Heli Suite.
Again, I won't go on a full tutorial here because you can easily find BL Heli Suite tutorials on youtube. But I'll give you the basics : If you have a Naze32 like me, you don't need special programming cables ! just plug your FC with the USB cable, open BL Heli Suite and in the "Select ATMEL/SILABS interface" tab, choose "SILABS BLHeLi bootloader (CleanFlight).
Then just click connect and you'll be good to go !
Programming the ESC is usefull to reverse a motor direction without having to swap the already soldered cable between the ESC and the motor.
Step 5: Have Fun Safely !
There you go, you're all set yo have fun with your unique 3D printed drone !
I hope you'll find this tutorial helpful and that it will inspire many of you to create nice looking quadcopters !
I have included the 3D STL files of my drone if you want to try and build the same one without having to re design it ;)
Please, always fly legally and always check for your specific country regulations (FAA for example). Such drones can be very dangerous (cutting propellers and high capable of reaching high speeds) and can easily harm people or cause property damage if not used correctly. Always fly safely, away from people, habitations or animals.