Building a quadcopter is real fun. It gives you a thrill because you are making something that will fly and you feel like Right Brothers for a moment. In this article, we will talk about the flight controller which is the whole and soul of a drone. You have to be very careful while selecting a flight controller because it’s the brain of the drone.
There are hundreds of flight controllers are available in the market and to choose the best one among them becomes difficult. So, we’ll be guiding you through the whole process, what are things that you have to keep in mind? What are the requirements of a drone and much more?
If you are new to drones, then you ever wondered what the components required to build a drone are? There are dozens of the parts needed to make a perfect drone, and you don’t build those components from scratch instead you buy them and assemble them. Flight Controller is one of the most critical elements to decide the smoothness in your flight. It works as a bridge between transmitter and drone, because whatever information you feed to the transmitter is being transferred to the drone by flight controller only.
If we talk about the structure of a flight controller, then it is a complex board with a lot of circuits in it. Some of them call it the nervous system of the drone as well. Whatever information, you feed through the controller is accessed through the circuit board and motors rotate accordingly.
There are so many sensors on the controllers which are needed to give the accurate position of the drone. Flight Controller plays a massive role in deciding the efficiency of a drone. If you are from electronics or electrical engineering background, then probably you can build your flight controller otherwise it’s quite challenging to get into it as the process is quite tricky and need a good experience.
Anyway, we won’t be teaching you how to build the flight controller from scratch. We’ll only cover the best flight controllers and what are the things you have to keep in mind before choosing one.
Flight Controller Basics
Identify your requirements
Flight Controllers come in different size and specifications, so you have to understand what kind of drone you want to build. You have to draw the proper overview for better understanding. What firmware, you are going to use, what would be the size, is it quadcopter, hexacopter, or octocopter? So, in this section, we’ll discuss what the things that you have to keep in mind building the drone are.
Firmware: Make sure, which firmware you are going to use because that decides the type of controller you will need. Not every controller supports each firmware, so you have to choose accordingly.
Multi rotor Selection: How many motors, you are going to use? Whether it’s going to be tricopter, quadcopter, hexacopter or octocopter. Or it’s the one with fixed wings. I would suggest, you are a beginner and don’t have enough experience in drone building, Go for quadcopter as this one is the easiest to build.
Advanced Features: You also have to keep in mind what features you want with your drone. GPS, Camera, LEDs, and others. Accordingly, you have to integrate the sensors, UBECS and other components.
Base Size: Whatever base size, you are using to build the drone should be able to accommodate the controller. If you are thinking of making an advanced drone, it should have room for customization so that you can fit other components as well.
Weight: Do you want your drone to carry some weight? And what should be the drone weight you are looking for? Have an idea about it? This will help you out in building your desired drone. Also, keep in mind, the more the weight is, less battery backup it will give.
How to choose the flight controller
In the above section, we discussed the things that you have to keep in mind in building the drone to get better clarity. But, in this section, we’ll talk about how to choose the flight controller specifically. These are the points you should check before buying a flight controller.
Size: There is a standard size of a flight controller that is 36 mm x 36 mm with mounting holes at 30.5mm. So, you are building a usual size drone with regular frame size; you can go with this controller size. There are micro versions as well with 20*20 mounting hole pattern; you can go for this one if you want to build a compact size racing drone. You can know more about it over here.
Processing speed: Processing speed is a significant factor in deciding the responsiveness of a drone. Generally, Each flight controller comes with four micro controllers. STM Electronics Company builds these controllers. Most of them come with the 32bit version. Below are the four versions of CPUs that you would be getting by this company.
- STM32F1 CPU: This is the first generation of micro controller comes with 32bit and also known as F1. These are very old CPUs that micro controllers used to use. It won’t support the latest version of BetaFlight and Inav. They work at 72Mhz and obsolete nowadays. It is not recommended if you are thinking of building an advanced drone.
- STM32F3 CPU: This is a second generation 32 bit controller also known as F3. This CPU is very common among many different controllers. It is being used by Omnibus F3, Lux Racer F3, SP Racing F3, and many others. It also works at the same speed as the old ones with 72Mhz. It also has an integrated processor which allows floating number calculation that makes it faster than the previous version of CPU. Their compatibility with a lot of controllers also makes more popular among newbies.
- STM32F4 CPU: This is one of the most popular CPUs and used by a lot of controllers around the world. It is also called as F4. It works at 180Mhz that makes it a lot faster than the F3 and F1. These are very good for image stabilization as it is capable of running BetaFlight with PID Loop 16Khz. Here, algorithm happens 16000 times in one second. There is also one constraint for this kind of controllers that the board should come with hardware inverters as The software can’t do UARTs of the F4 chip inversion.
- STM32F7 CPU: If you want to make a super fast drone with some features then it is the recommended CPU. It is one of the fastest CPU available today. It is also known as F7 and also one of the most costly ones. It is used by some of the best controllers in the market like KISS FC V2 and Omnibus F7. When it comes to speed, you get the 216Mhz super fast speed that allows you to build your dream drone.
Some Serial Ports (UARTs): number of serial ports allow you to get integration with more external devices. There are several other components that you have to connect that includes Radio Telemetry, video transmitter, GPS, Camera, OSD, and many others. If you are thinking of building a high-end drone, make sure it has enough number of ports to suffice the requirements. Some serial ports give you more room for customization.
Compass and Barometer: A lot of controllers come with integrated compass and barometer. To make the drone more autonomous, these features are required. It also allows you to use the different modes like altitude hold, FOV and many more. The inbuilt integration is not necessary for mini racing quadcopters.
Firmware Compatibility: There is a lot of firmware in the market, but BetaFlight and InavFlight are the most common ones. They are supported by most of the controllers. So, make sure that firmware that you are choosing is compatible with the controller or not.
ESCs: Some controllers are capable of integrating the ESCs. Generally, controllers come with four ESCs on a single board. The benefit of this structure is that it is very neat and clean that allows the secure connection while the negative point is that you have replaced the whole board if one ESCs get broken.
OSD: I would recommend going for a controller which has integrated OSD System. If you are getting it externally attached, then it would need more space and wires. It makes the whole system more complex and clumsy, and that’s why it is recommended to a controller which has inbuilt OSD.
UBEC: UBEC stands for ‘Ultimate Battery Eliminator Circuit. Most of the flight controller works on 5V power input to work. To provide the input source, you have to use PDB integrated with UBEC. Mostly, all the controllers accept power directly from the battery as they come with integrated UBEC. The UBEC itself doesn’t have much power, but it can control the controller, receiver and low-end camera.
PDB: PDB stands for Power Distribution Box. It’s a job to distribute power equally to all the ESCS. If you are going for all in one controller, then you will have PDB and controller attached to the single card. They are bit larger as everything is already integrated.
Top 10 flight controllers
1- DJI NAZA-M V20
This is one of the most popular flight controller built by DJI Company. It weighs around 10.4 ounces, and its dimensions are 5 x 3.7 x 31 inches. If you are thinking of making an advanced drone like Hexacopter and Octocopter, then this controller is recommended. It is compatible with PPM and S Bus receiver. The controller also has integrated advanced features that include GPS, altitude hold algorithm, IMU Calibration, Return to Home, Auto Path Selection and much more. Below are some of the important things that you should know about this controller.
- This controller is suitable for high-end drones. Those who love drone DIY, this controller is highly recommended. Best for six and eight rotor drones.
- It also has a failsafe mode that allows a secure landing of the drone even though one motor fails during the flight.
- Its advanced features give you more room for customization so that you can use some advanced flight modes. Its automatic course deviation technology allows the drone to be stable if there is any magnetic or any other kind of disturbance.
2- LHI PRO RACING F3 FLIGHT CONTROLLER
If you want to build an advanced racing drone which can reach a super amazing speed in just a matter of seconds, then this controller will be the best choice in the market. Its size is 36 mm x 36 mm x 30.5 mm, and it is very light, weighs around 8 grams. LHI Pro Racing Flight Controller is compatible with a lot of receivers like PWM, PPM, SumH, SumD, SBus, Spektrum1024/2048, and XBus. Most of the racing drone use the same controller. You also have options like CC3D, CJMCU, and a Sparky to choose from. It has more than eight channels that give you the perfect control over the drone. Below are some of the essential features of the drones that you should know.
- It has RGB LED strip support that helps you in building the light indicators. It will help you if you are building a drone that can fly at night.
- It has Autotune feature, PID Tuning, black box flight logging, and additional PID Controllers as well.
- The controller is perfect for mini quadcopters which are meant for racing. Its compatibility with the FPV gives it an edge over others.
- Its maintenance is low, and you get compatibility with future software developments.
3- HOBBYPOWER KK2.15
This comes at the third number in our top 10 list. It weighs around 8.6grams, and the size is 4.7 x 3.1 x 0.8 inches. It also comes with a lot of advanced features. It has self-update customer function, and you can also add an adjustable signal to the motors as well. It also has features like polarity protection and stability with 6050MPU. You can also upgrade from the previous version.
The Hobbypower KK2.15 is capable of handling the multi-rotors. It gives you more flexibility when drones with more number of rotors. The installation of this controller is pretty simple. You install the board, select the craft type and check the props direction and motor layout. And before taking off calibrate the ESCs and the radio.
4- NEW PIXHAWK PX4 2.4.6
PIXHAWK PX4 Controller comes at fourth place. It weighs around 1.1 pounds, and its dimensions are 81.5 mm x 50 mm x 15.5 mm. It is compatible with PPM Receiver.
If you want to make a high-end drone for aerial photography, then this controller is highly recommended. It has a lot of advanced features that makes this controller unique. You can use it for multi-colored LED indication and real-time transmission as well. Below are some of the main features that you have to take a look at.
- It has an automatic and manual mode which gives you more options. You also get dual full angle LED and micro SD slot as well.
- It doesn’t need 8 bit APM as it comes with 32-bit integrated sensor technology.
- It also gives you alternate backup control. The controller is very popular when it comes to high-end drones and bit cheaper than the other controllers in this range.
5- KISS FC 32bit Flight Controller
The KISS FC 32bit is one of the most flight controllers of all time. Though, it came long back but still preferred by a lot of drone enthusiasts. It has received excellent rating online. Flyduino created it and set the new benchmark. What I love about this controller, that its build structure is simple and not clumsy at all. It is versatile and efficient at the same time which allows a lot of room for customization. Below are some of the important things that you should know about KISS FC.
- It can support Tricopter, quadcopter, and hexacopter that allows you to build the kind of a drone that you want.
- It supports multiple RX types that include PPM Sum, Jeti, MultiPlex, Futaba and many others.
- It has a good processor specification that includes the 72MHz speed with 10 number of timers, the supply voltage of 2 to 3.6V and two watchdog.
- It also has gyro and accelerometer that operates in 3.6mA current and standby in 5uA current. The controller is also very affordable. Investing in it is worth every single penny.
6- F303 Racer
It costs less than $30 that makes it affordable. It is built for serious racers. It has a good build quality that eliminates the possibility of any damage during a crash. If you want to build a drone for aerial photography, then this controller won’t be recommended for you as it is specially built for high-speed compact drones. The newest version of F303 is the V3.1 that has a lot of updates than the previous model. It had easy pin style connectors, stackable design and dedicated SBUS port. Below are some of the important things that you should know about this drone.
- It has a very fast processor F3 so that you have a responsive and smooth flight.
- It also comes with 128Mb of flash storage which more than the other controllers and provides enough space for black box flights log.
- It is durable and also has a very tidy and clean setup. It is cheaper than the other controllers in this range. Naze32 Rev6 is costlier than this one.
7- DTFc Flight Controller
It comes with integrated F3 based FC with one board PDB that makes this controller unique and give it edge over other controllers. It had 120A current sensor with Shock tolerant IMU and dedicated LEDstrip port as well. It is also 6S capable that makes it more powerful. It can easily be installed, connect all the ESCs & battery and you are good to go. It has one simple small board that reduces the clumsy wiring, reduces weight and size and ultimately increases the speed. Below are DTFc Flight Controller advanced features.
- It has the flat bottom structure which allows you to mount it directly on your frame.
- It comes with the latest sensor technology which has the lowest rate of noise in comparison to the other sensors.
- You get two serial ports as well which are not shared with serial RX and USB Port.
- It runs Beta flight and supports PPM, SBUS, SUMD, and other input types as well which makes configuration very simple and easy.
8- Naze32 Rev 5
If you are building a mid sized rotorcraft, then this flight controller could be a perfect fit for you. It supports various airframes that include quadcopter, hexacopter, octocopter, and tricopter as well. But, the quad is the default one. It has up to 8 channel RC and supports multiple receivers that comprise of PPM, PWM, Spektrum and many others.
You also get battery voltage monitoring feature that is a cool feature for a super cheap controller like this. Its dimensions are 36*36mm with 30.5mm mounting. It weighs around 5.3grams which makes it very lightweight. Below are some of the main features of Naze32 Rev 5.
- It runs on 32 bit processor with 3.3V and 72MHz. Onboard MicroUSB makes the setup and configuration easier.
- It allows LEDs to be super bright that increases the visibility of the drone as well and you can fly it in the night as well.
- It has Multi Wii configuration that makes easy software setup. This acro version is very popular among drone enthusiasts, and if you are a beginner, it is highly recommended for you.
9- RMRC Seriously Dodo Flight ControllerRe v 3
This comes in the ninth place. It is created by Ready Made RC Company, and you get a lot of advanced features with this one. It has eight input and output channels and 3 UARTs that can be used for GPS, Telemetry and S.bus. You also get 2MB of storage with it. It also has barometer and spektrum satellite port which makes it stand out of the crowd. Its dimensions are 36*36mm with 30.5mm mounting holes. It weighs around 5.4grams only. Below are some of the main features of Dodo flight controller.
- The company also donate some money, every time you buy a flight controller. So, your money is worth investing and also going for a good cause.
- It also has microUSB socket and dedicated WS2811-style LEDs connector.
- It is dirt cheap, and if you buy it from their official website, you get it for $10. So, if you are a beginner and don’t want to spend a lot of money and still want a good controller, then Dodo is for you.
10- ABUSEMARK NAZE32 FLIGHT CONTROLLER
This comes at 10th number in our top 10 list but still worth, taking a look. Its dimensions are 6 x 4 x 0.4 inches, and it weighs around 0.3 ounces. It is compatible with receivers like Sum, Spektrum Satellite, PWM, and PPM. It has three axis gyro and an accelerometer as well that take care of smoothness and stability of flight. It also supports various airframes like bi, tri, quad, hexa, and even octo. Quad is the default one, you get. Below are some of the important things about ABUSEMARK NAZE32 FLIGHT CONTROLLER.
- It is not made in China; instead, it is made in Japan that ensures the better quality of the controller.
- If you buy the full kit, you will be getting the 1x 2×5 header, 1x RC breakout cable and 1x 3×6 right angle header as well.
- It also has low resolution barometer that allows it to have altitude logging.
- You won’t be getting any compass with it. It can connect up to 4 channel receiver.
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