Sick of looking high and low for the perfect Christmas gift?
Christmas can be a stressful time of year for all sorts of reasons, not least the pressure of finding your loved ones presents that they will love. Gifts matter. They should be thoughtful and say something personal about your relationship with that person.
That’s one of the reasons why making a gift (or giving a gift that you can make together) is so popular.
But the trouble is that many handmade gifts are often last minute and slap-dash – falling apart or consigned to the bin after just one or two uses.
If you have someone in your life who loves to tinker and be creative, someone who’s always looking to stay up to date with the latest technology and someone who loves new and exciting sports, give them the gift of making their own drone this year.
There are different types of drone.
Aerial photography drones
Aerial photography drones are increasingly popular. Where once you would need to rent a helicopter to get amazing aerial shots, now you can achieve the same effect with a relatively low-cost drone.
Aerial photography drones tend to be quite large, with extra power to lift sophisticated camera equipment off the ground.
They also tend to have lots of flight assist options to help their pilots get the best possible shots.
It is possible to build your own aerial photography drone, but because of their added size and complexity – we would not recommend it. Especially if you are inexperienced at making electronic products.
Freestyle flying and racing drones
These drones are very different. They are much smaller and lighter than aerial photography drones and tend to be cheaper as well.
The most common type of racing drone is a four-propeller quadcopter. They are built small to be fast and agile - able to negotiate sharp corners quickly and even perform stunts.
Unlike aerial photography drones, they don’t tend to carry big bulky camera equipment. But many racing drones are called ‘first-person view’ drones because they give you a drivers’ eye view.
The footage from them can be mesmerizing. Just check out this video of a drone racing league in the Miami Dolphin’s NFL stadium.
Types of DIY drones
As well as different types of drones, there are also different options for building your own. The drones come in different stages of preparedness and are easier to build.
DIY drone kits come are essentially curated boxes of parts and instructions that allow you to get a high-tech drone while getting the satisfaction of actually building it yourself.
All the parts are optimised to work with each other but may not suit everybody’s flying style. Clearly, what you lack in customisation options, you can make up for in ease of build. It also means your less likely to get put off if everything goes wrong, because it is less likely to go wrong.
Almost ready to fly
You can also buy kits that are ‘almost ready to fly.’ These tend to be pre-assembled drones that you can add little pieces to or customise to feel like you are involved in the process.
These are good for people who just want to dip their toe into making drones – be warned though, your loved one might quickly catch the big for customisation and could be making their own flying machines within months.
Build your own
Buying components separately and assembling them yourself is the trickiest way to make your own drone – but the results can be more impressive and more rewarding.
If you are going to do it all yourself, and you haven’t done it before – it’s important that you get help. Speak to someone who knows about drone making, read a book or watch a video. This is particularly important when it comes to choosing components, because if you choose wrong then there’s a chance your copter won’t fly.
If you do decide to build your own, then you will have to select your components. The key components and parts are as follows:
The frame is the body of your drone – its where you mount all the other components. The frame needs to be light, so they usually leave components exposed (you can protect some of the most vital components with heat shrink).
You also need to make sure that the propeller arms are long enough to allow the propellers to spin.
You can buy pre-built frames or download a CAD file and cut one out yourself – ensuring you use a suitably light material.
You Drone’s Power Distribution Board (PDB) is its heart. It helps regulate your quadcopters power supply, drawing power from the battery and distributing it to other components.
This helps you fly straight and ensures your circuits won’t short out.
Electronic Speed Controllers (ESCs) control the speed of your motors. For a quadcopter with four propellers and four motors, you’ll need four ESCs.
ESCs come in different amperages. This is the ‘size’ of the ESC and you need to make sure that it is compatible with your motor, your battery and the pitch of your propellers – otherwise, you will have problems flying your drone (see the video below).
Your motor is what’s going to get you up into the air and keep you there, so it is worth thinking about.
You need to make sure your motors (and propellers) give you enough thrust to overcome gravity and get into the air.
Choosing your motor, propellers and battery can be a case of trial and error. Unless you are using a kit or have some expert advice then it can be a slow process.
This video breaks all the important points down in quite an easy to understand way.
Getting the right drone propellers can be a difficult task. Some propellers are built to improve speed while others are geared towards better thrust and stability.
You also have to take into account the size and durability of your propellers, ensuring they fit in your frame and making sure they won’t break if you crash.
Choosing a battery can be difficult. You obviously want to keep flying as long as possible, but you need to square flight time against device weight, because the battery will be one of your heaviest components.
Again, weight (mass X gravity) vs. thrust will be one of your top concerns when planning a quadcopter design.
Your transmitter (RC Controller) and receiver are a crucial part of your flying experience. The number of channels on your transmitter should determine how many individual actions you can have your control do.
Throttle, yaw (rotating left and right), pitch (lean forward and backwards) and roll take up four channels – so the minimum you need is four channel transmitters.
FPV or first-person view components are what enables you to fly a quadcopter without being able to see it directly. FPV gives you greater control because it means that you are ‘in the driver’s seat’ instead of judging distances etc. from far away.
Although FPV isn’t necessary – particularly if it is a first build – they are important if you want to make a fully-fledged racing drone.
You can buy FPV kits which include chips, camera and viewing equipment (usually a screen or special VR goggles).
Heat shrink tubing is a lightweight way to seal up some of your most vital components, protecting them if you crash and making them less exposed to the elements.
Wide heat shrink tubing can be used to seal each of the four legs of your quadcopter. Protecting components and wire from damage.
Quadcopter assembly doesn’t need to be difficult. You only need basic electronics assembly skills, such as knowing how to solder and how to operate a heat gun. You may need some patience, and be good at finding information off the internet or in books, but there is no reason that anyone you gift a drone-to-be-to should be put off by the assembly.
Special equipment you’ll need:
- Soldering iron
- Heat gun
Each build will be slightly different, but you will generally start with the quadcopter frame, adding the PDB and the motored propellers to that before adding the battery.
Once everything is in position and you have tested, you can apply heat shrink tubing to the quadcopter arms using a heat gun.
For more advice on quadcopter assembly, we recommend watching one of the following two videos. The first provides a good introduction to quadcopters in general, and shows the assembly quite quickly.
This second video is slightly more in-depth and takes more care to explain the assembly at every stage of production.