Today we will turn some readily available components into a quadcopter capable of taking high-quality aerial photos and stabilized HD video. The craft will also include safety features so new pilots can feel confident flying the quadcopter. A live video stream from the quadcopter is delivered to a mobile device from a Raspberry Pi over WiFi. Having a Linux computer aboard the drone also presents you with many opportunities—additional sensors, computer vision, etc.
In the first part of this series we will go through the hardware of the quadcopter—what parts you need, what each part does, and how to assemble each part. In the second and third part of this series we will go through the software of the quadcopter—enabling fail safes, remote control, and flight modes.
DJI F450 ARF (Almost Ready to Fly) Kit
3300mAh 3S 35C LiPo battery with T-Connectors
EV-Peak – AP606 – 50W DC LiPo battery charger/discharger (most LiPo battery chargers will work)
Before starting this project it is imperative to understand the purpose of each part of the quadcopter. Below is a list of each part on the quadcopter you will build, its purpose, and the specific part used in this How-To.
Purpose: The frame provides a convenient way to mount motors and electronics
Parts used in this project: DJI Flame Wheel 450 (F450) frame (included in the ARF Kit)
Brushless motors and propellers:
Purpose: The motors spin the propellers to generate thrust to lift the quadcopter
Parts used in this project: DJI E305 960KV motors and DJI 9450 propellers (both included in the ARF Kit)
Electric Speed Controllers (ESC):
Purpose: ESCs power the brushless motors and provide a PWM interface that allows the flight controller to control the speed (and thrust) of each motor
Parts used in this project: DJI E305 960KV motors (included in the ARF Kit)
Purpose: As the name suggests, the flight controller controls how the quadcopter is flown. A flight is a small computer that has an Inertial Measurement Unit or IMU (which includes a gyroscope and accelerometer) to keep the quadcopter stable; the flight controller also has a barometer, GPS, magnetometer to allow the flight controller to know at what altitude it is at, where on the earth it is, and what direction it is facing, respectively.
Parts used in this project: NAZA-M Lite with GPS kit (included in the ARF Kit)
Voltage regulator, flight controller status LED/USB Interface:
Purpose: The voltage regulator provides a steady 5V to the flight controller. The status LED relays info about the state of the quadcopter to the pilot during flight. Indicators include low battery and a GPS lock. The USB interface also allows the flight controller to be configured from a PC (we will use this in part #2).
Parts used in this project: The voltage regulator and status LED used are included with the NAZA-M Lite
Purpose: Lithium Polymer (LiPo) batteries are the preferred way to provide energy to the quadcopter—due to a high energy to weight ratio and high maximum discharge currents. It is very important to understand how to safely use and charge LiPo batteries before you connect one to your quadcopter! Not doing so can result in fires and/or explosions. There are a few battery specifications to understand, some of which are described below.
Capacity: reflects how long a specific current can be drawn from the battery before it is considered “dead”. For example, if there is a 1200 mAh (milli-amp-hour) and you are drawing a continuous 1000mA from the battery it would be dead after 1200 mAh / 1000mA = 1.2 hours. In general, battery life = capacity (mAh) / current (mA). It is recommended to only use a LiPo battery until 80% of its capacity has been consumed.
Cell Count: every LiPo battery is composed of 1 or more cells. Cells are connected in series so that the total voltage of the battery is the sum of the individual cell voltages. The number of cells on a LiPo battery is usually marked as the number before the “S”—a battery marked 2S would have 2 cells.
Discharge rate: the discharge rate reflects the maximum amount of current that can be safely drawn from the battery. The discharge rate on a LiPo battery is usually marked as the number before the “C”—a battery marked 35C could provide a maximum current of 35 x Capacity.
Part used in this project: The battery used in this project is a 3300 mAh 3S 35C LiPo battery with T-Connectors from ReadyMadeRC.
LiPo Battery charger:
Purpose: A LiPo battery charger safely charges a LiPo battery. It is important to use a LiPo battery charger and not a battery charger designed for other battery chemistries (NiCd, NiMH).
Part used in this project: EV-Peak – AP606 – 50W DC Charger/Discharger
Transmitter + Receiver:
Purpose: The transmitter accepts the pilot’s commands via multiple joysticks and switches and relays them wirelessly to a receiver on the quadcopter. The receiver decodes the pilot’s commands and forwards them to the flight controller.
Parts used in this project: RadioLink AT9 2.4GHz 9CH Transmitter w/ R9D 9CH Receiver
Gimbal + Camera:
Purpose: The camera and gimbal transforms a quadcopter into an aerial photography platform capable of capturing professional quality footage. The camera is attached to a gimbal, which essentially performs the opposite movements of the quadcopter—making sure the camera is always level with the horizon.
Parts used in this project: Xiaomi Yi Action Camera, FeiYu Tech Mini-3D Gimbal
RPi, RPi Camera, WiFi dongle:
Purpose: While the gimbal-mounted camera can record video at a stunning 2K resolution, even the best camera gear is useless if your desired subject is not in the frame. A Raspberry Pi camera is connected to a Raspberry Pi Model A+ with a 5GHz WiFi dongle. This allows the Raspberry Pi to broadcast a live stream of the forward-facing Raspberry Pi camera to any device connected over WiFi.
Parts used in this project: Raspberry Pi Model A+, Raspberry Pi Camera Module, D-Link DWA-160.
Android phone, phone mount:
Purpose: The phone hosts a Wi-Fi hotspot that the Raspberry Pi connects to and provides a convenient screen to view the live stream from the drone. The phone mount is a helpful way to attach the phone to the transmitter.
Parts used in this project: LG Nexus 5 (any Android Phone with support for mobile hotspot will work). Any phone mount that has a suction cup on one end and a magnetic phone mount on the other
Step #1: Solder ESCs to bottom plate
The DJI F450 frame that we are using has a top plate and a bottom plate, which when assembled “sandwich” the arms between them. Each of the four arms will hold a motor at the end of the arm and an ESC under the arm. Together the two plates hold the four arms together and provide a mounting surface for all the components we will be installing on the quadcopter.
The bottom plate has a very important function—it distributes the battery’s power to all the ESCs. As you can see in the picture above there are five pairs of positive and negative pads—one for each ESC and one for the battery connector. Each ESC (electronic speed controller) has two cables coming from its casing: a two wire PWM cable and a larger black power cable.
Figure 2: Electronic Speed Controller (ESC)
We are concerned with the power cable now—the PWM cable will be connected to the flight controller later. The power cable is much longer than we need it, it can be snipped to about 12cm long. Then cut off some of the black insulation from the cable to reveal a red wire (positive) and a bare wire (negative). Solder the red wire to the pad with the (+) and the bare wire to the pad with the (–). To help prevent any short-circuit I covered the pads with hot glue. Repeat this process for each motor.
Step #2: Solder the voltage regulator and battery wire to bottom plate
After soldering the ESCs to the bottom plate there will still be one pair of pads with nothing connected to them (the pads at the bottom in Figure 1). These pads are where we connect the battery wires and the wires for the voltage regulator (Figure 3).
Figure 3: The voltage regulator is the small black rectangle between the two white legs
Included in the NAZA-M Lite box should be two large gauge wires—a red one and a black one. Solder the provided red wire and the red wire from the voltage regulator to the positive (+) pad. Solder the provided black wire and the black wire from the voltage regulator to the negative (–) pad. To help prevent short-circuits I covered the solder pads with hot glue.
Figure 4. The battery and voltage regulator wires soldered to the power distribution board
Step #3: Attach T-connector
Now we can’t directly solder the battery to these wires; if we did so we would not be able to swap out batteries or charge them. So to connect the battery to the power distribution board in the bottom plate we will solder a male T-connector to the two wires we just soldered. To do so place the connector short-side up, and solder the red wire to the short horizontal part and the black wire to the short vertical part (see connector on right in the figure below for polarity).
Take the black double sided tape provided with the NAZA-M Lite and cut off a piece about as long as the flight controller. Peel the protective wrap off one side of the tape and firmly affix it to the middle of the bottom plate. Then take your flight controller and orient the side that has multiple labels of M1,M2, M3, etc. towards the side of the bottom place you decided is the front of the quadcopter. Remove the protective wrap off the other side of the tape and affix the flight controller to the tape.
Step #5: Mount RC receiver
I choose to mount my RC receiver to the bottom of the lower plate extension on the back of the frame. Simply attach it with hot glue or double-sided tape. The wire that extrudes from the receiver is the antenna—leave it alone until we assemble the legs.
Figure 8. The receiver is placed underneath the back of the frame
Step #6: Attach servo cables from receiver to flight controller
Each column of three pins on the receiver outputs a PWM signal. In the RC world, each of these PWM signals is called a channel and represents one component of the pilot’s commands. For example channel 3 on the receiver is the pilot’s desired throttle. For the flight controller to receive each of the pilot’s commands we must use a PWM cable to connect each channel on the receiver to the flight controller. Note that the orange (signal) wire on the PWM cable should be on the top when inserted into the flight controller, and the other end of the brown cable should face downwards when connected to the receiver.
Figure 9. The PWM cables connected to the receiver. Notice how the cables are inserted so that the orange wire is on top.
You should attach the PWM cables as follows (where the channel number on the left is written on the receiver and the letter in parentheses on the right is written on the back of the NAZA):
Channel 1 = Aileron (A)
Channel 2 = Elevon (E)
Channel 3 = Throttle (T)
Channel 4 = Rudder (R)
Channel 5 = Flight Mode (U)
Channel 6 = Orientation Lock (X2)
Step #7: Attach ESC servo cables to flight controller
Remember those servo cables from ESCs I mentioned earlier? Now we will connect them to the flight controller. Connecting the ESC to the flight controller in the wrong order is a common cause of crashes so it is important to get it right the first time.
On the forward facing side of your NAZA-M Lite you will see multiple columns of pins labeled M1–M6; we only have to deal with pins M1–M4. You must connect the motors to the flight controller according to the diagram below where the red arms are the front of the quadcopter. For example, the servo cable from the front right ESC must be connected to M1; the front left ESC servo cable must be connected to M2, and so on moving in a counterclockwise direction.
Now that we have installed all the electronics on the bottom plate it is time to secure the arms and plates together, starting with the top plate. You may have noticed that the DJI F450 frame includes two red arms and two white arms. This is because we can place the two red arms on the front of the quadcopter and the two white arms on the back of the quadcopter so when the quadcopter is in the air we will know where its front is pointed.
Figure 12: Each arm is bolted to the top plate as shown below
Use the bolts provided with the frame to secure each arm to the top plate with four bolts. Make sure that the two red arms are on the side of the NAZA where you connected the ESC servo cables into M1 and M2—this will be the front of the quadcopter. After the next step, you will see that each arm is effectively “sandwiched” between the top and bottom plates.
Step #9: Attach legs and bottom plate
Figure 13: The legs used for the frame
The white legs that came with your F450 ARF kit (pictured above) are used to protect important electronics underneath the quadcopter during takeoff and landing. The legs are attached by using the long bolts provided with the frame. Position the legs so that they run directly underneath the arms and run the bolts through the legs, the bottom plate, and into the bottom of the arm. Make sure that the ESC power cable runs from frame underneath the arch on the bottom part of the arm. Repeat this procedure for each of the four arms.
Figure 14. The legs are placed directly below the arms. Notice how the ESC cables fit between the space in the arm.
Figure 15: How legs are secured to the bottom of the frame