I frequently get asked how much it costs to build a quadcopter or other multi-rotor helicopter. I usually try to add together a number real quick based on equipment I own. Which could come close to $1000. I decided to look closer at the real cost for a basic complete setup to get started flying (if you own zero RC gear).
Below is a buying guide that includes everything needed to put a quadcopter in the air. Best news, it is less than $275 before shipping.
PLEASE NOTE: I picked these items based on their low cost yet good reviews. Some of these items I have personally used and some I have not. This is what I recommend for someone who wants to get started and will likely crash a lot along the way. There are “Ready to Fly” (RTF) quadcopters available but these can have proprietary parts. My list provides a setup that makes it easy to interchange parts for common RC hobby stock. I also apologize if I recommend something that is out of stock when you read this.
UPDATE: 02-23-2014 HobbyKing now sells a very similar ready-to-fly kit, just add batteries and a charger.
The Frame – $14
Hobbyking X525 V3 Glass Fiber Quadcopter Frame
This frame is based on a tried and true frame design for multirotors. Aluminum square tube arms and fiberglass center plates. This frame also folds, making it easier to transport and store. Because beginners usually crash a lot, it is important that replacement parts are cheap. The aluminum arms are typically what will be damaged in a crash. Be sure to buy extras!
Frame option #2 -$8
Since writing this post, it has been pointed out that the above frame might be a bit heavy for the motors/props I am about to suggest. Another lighter, smaller, cheaper option is the Q450 frame from Hobbyking. I have tried similar DJI flamewheel clone frames. The only downside is the arms have some flex to them and can break from rough landings. Hobbyking doesn’t seem to stock replacement arms, perhaps buy a 2nd frame if you need spares.
The Motors – $57
I recently put these motors on a small H-Quad and I highly recommend them. Great build quality and smooth flights. As detailed below, they should be paired with a 20 amp speed controller and 8″ propeller. Remember to get 4 motors!
The Speed Controllers (ESCs) – $40
Until recently, affordable speed controllers designed specifically for multi-rotor helicopters have not existed. Previously we all used ESCs designed for standard helicopters and planes. Hobbyking has created the multistar speed controller designed specifically for the needs of a multi-rotor setup. These controllers can also be reflashed with the SimonK firmware. See my tutorial on how to do that. You will need a speed controller for each motor.
The Propellers – $3
This set includes 2 props for clockwise and 2 for counter-clockwise rotation. Even though this is the minimum number of props needed to get flying, buy extras. These will break during crashes as well!
I have used Zippy batteries in the past and they offer good bang for the buck. Get extras if you don’t want to recharge between every flight! For a little more punch and faster charging, I would recommend the Turnigy Nano-Tech.
I have not tried this charger myself. There are more expensive and higher power (faster charge times) chargers on the market. This charger has good reviews and for a small battery like I am recommending above it should be adequate for a beginner. I should warn that with any lithium battery or charger, there is a risk of fire from damaged cells, improper charge/discharge or a faulty charger. I would recommend also getting a fire-safe charge sack.
I have not used this transmitter as it just came onto the market. The transmitter uses DSM2 communication also used in Spektrum & JR radio systems. I have used my Spektrum DX8 transmitter with lots of OrangeRX receivers and have has zero issues.
As I mentioned above, I have used several of these on my builds without a problem. Small, lightweight and inexpensive. This will connect to your flight controller and receive all the control movements from your transmitter.
This controller requires zero programming via computer. All setup is done through the 4 buttons and LCD screen on-board. A very good value and stable flight controller.
I personally fly the OpenPilot CC3D on most of my copters. If you are looking for something a bit more advanced while still easy to setup with a computer, check this one out.
If using the KK2.0 controller, you will need some of these male to male servo extensions to connect each channel of your radio’s receiver to your flight controller. The OpenPilot boards will come with a wiring harness for connecting your radio to the flight controller.
Unlike traditional batteries, lithium polymer (LiPo) batteries can’t be fully discharged without damaging the cells. When the voltage reaches about 3.3 volts per cell, it is time to stop using the battery. This handy little alarm will let you know when you are low on juice. I have used these on all my builds. A must have!
Sure it is just a velcro strap. But you are going to need it to secure your battery to the bottom of your quadcopter. I also use these straps on most of my copters. Another must have. You may also want to purchase some velcro that has adhesive on the back sides. Put a square on one side of your battery and the reverse on the bottom of the quad frame. This will ensure your battery doesn’t slide around.
Most flight controllers have a mounting hole spacing of 45mm, which was made standard by Mikrokopter. The Openpilot boards all have a unique, smaller mounting footprint of 30.5mm. Most frames come ready to fit the non-openpilot sized flight controllers. You will need one of these adapter plates to mount the flight controller. Unless, you feel adventurous and want to drill holes in your frame.
Lastly, you will need this pre-made wiring harness to connect all of your speed controllers to the battery.
Purchase the Servo leads at HobbyKing.com »
Purchase the LiPo alarm at HobbyKing.com »
Purchase the battery strap at HobbyKing.com »
Purchase the mounting adapter at Shapeways.com »
Purchase the wiring harness at HobbyKing.com »
Please keep in mind this is a buying guide and not a build tutorial. If you have zero experience on how a multi-rotor helicopter is setup or operates, please do some research on the web. There are many resources and communities that can assist in your build and learning to fly.