Building a Quad – Assembly

After picking the parts the first thing I did was take the flight controller and plug it into USB and connect it to Betaflight to check two things. First just to make sure that it powered up before I started doing any soldering on it. So in case I got a defective part I would be sure that it wasn’t something I did on the workbench that broke it, and I’d more easily be able to get a replacement. The second thing was to see if it was to record the firmware target that the flight controller was using and make sure it was the most recent firmware version.

Then next thing to do to prepare for the build was to flash the receiver with the most recent firmware version from FrSky. This was a new process to me and involved downloading the firmware from the vendor, storing it on an SD card that I inserted into my radio, and then plugging the receiver into the radio using a wiring harness that the receiver came, then flashing the firmware.

Finally it was time to start building the quad, starting with the frame. I’d already watched a video of a more experience builder putting one together, but seeing it done once and doing it yourself tend to be very different experiences. For fun and to try to stay organized, I started out by organizing all of the pieces.

There’s four arms, blue standoffs, a top plate, a pair of bottom plates that sandwich the arms, and miscellaneous screws. Putting it together wasn’t too much different from assembling a Lego kit or any of the various children’s toys that I’ve had to put together after a birthday party or on Christmas morning. I think it took me about 20 minutes to get the bottom plate and arms assembled and be ready to starting on installing the motors and the electronics.

Before I started installing any of the electronics, I needed to tin all of the pads, and I figured that would be easier to do before I put them on the frame. In all of the build videos I’d watched to get ready for this, the builder would just put the board on the frame and then add the solder from there, but I was coming into this with just a little bit of soldering experience and I wanted to give myself the best chance at success. So I laid out all of the boards in the flight stack and made sure I knew which wires ran to which pad.

Then I tinned all of the boards at once: flight controller, four-in-one ESC, and VTX. The Caddx HD capture board on the camera had plugs and didn’t need any soldering.

Putting the ESC onto the frame as the base of the flight stack and installing the motors marked the first real part of the build for me as the quadcopter started to take shape. The process itself was pretty simple: screw a motor onto an arm, run the motor wires to the ESC, measure and cut the wires, solder them to the ESC. But cutting wires like that was a bit nerve wracking for me, as I was paranoid about cutting the wires too short and too long. On the one side I’d end up without enough slack and have to solder additional wire back on along with heat shrinking the joint, and on the other side I was trying to have a clean build plus extra wire would also contribute to extra weight. Which a few grams doesn’t sound like a lot but for a small 3″ build like this every gram counts.

After that the next step was the battery lead. As often seems to happen to me with this hobby, the part I was thinking was going to be easy turned out to be pretty difficult. It took a lot of work for me to get these two leads soldered onto the main battery pads of the ESC board. The heavy gauge wire and the big soldering pads on the board required a lot more heat than I’d been using up until now in order to get the joints flowed together properly.

Soldering the rest of the electronics was pretty easy. The hard part had been getting the documentation online for the various parts and making sure I knew which pads to use on the flight controller for the camera and the VTX. It had a pin header that plugged straight into the ESC board which made assembling the rest of the flight stack pretty easy.

Then came the big moment, plugging in the battery for the first time to see if it all worked. After going over all of the solder joints with a multimeter to see if I had shorted anything, I took the battery and plugged into a smoke stopper before plugging that into the battery lead on my new quadcopter. A smoke stopper is basically a fuse that will trip in the case when there’s a short somewhere so that you don’t release the magic smoke from the electronics. I’d bought one with a light and a reusable fuse at the same time that I ordered my parts.

The smoke stopper lit up green and the leds on the flight controller, receiver, and VTX are lit up as well. The best part though was hearing the startup tones playing as the flight controller and motors synced up.

After the battery test I connected it to my computer and went into Betaflight to check that all of the motors were spinning the right direction, and then change the settings on the two that weren’t. Then I plugged in a battery again and I checked that my radio would connect, and that I was getting a video signal in my goggles from the VTX.

At this point I figured I was just about done, I just needed to put the top plate on and the props. Which naturally is when I ran into the one problem that gave me the most trouble in the whole build.

When I picked out all of the parts, I remember adding up all of the heights to make sure that it would fit inside the frame. But I was looking at the height of the standoffs on the frame and not the length of the screws for the flight stack which were a couple of millimeters shorter. That makes sense to me now since you don’t want those touching the top plate and transferring impacts from the top plate into the flight stack, but it meant that I was just a couple of millimeters short on getting the top plate on my brand new build.

It took more time rearranging the parts and trying difference spacers between the boards to get everything to fit than it did to do the whole rest of the build, or at least that’s what it felt like to me, but in the end I did manage to squeeze everything in. I wasn’t completely happy with the solution but it would do until I could order slightly taller standoffs and longer stack screws.

Building a Quad – Picking the Parts

With the weather warming up I started looking into building a larger sized quad to fly outside. I decided I didn’t want to go straight to a full sized quadcopter with 5″ props which is the standard for FPV freestyle. I wanted to be able to fly comfortably in my yard, so that I could get more time in during the week, rather than always having to go to a field or park. So I settled on a 3″ build plan, because I’d heard that building for smaller props than that wasn’t as good of an experience.

Build a quad from scratch was a daunting experience because of all of the different pieces that needed to be selected and work together. You have to decide on a frame, what size of motors, the camera, the video transmitter (VTX), the receiver, the antennas, the props, the electronic speed controllers (ESCs), and the flight controller. Each component has an impact on the others too. There’s the obvious factor of the weight of the different components versus the thrust that the motors and props will generate, but also just compatibility between the amount of space in the frame for components and the mounting pattern versus the size of the flight controller and other electronics.

I started with the motors and got some advice from some local pilots to look at 1407’s as a good size for flying 3″ props. Then I used a site called RotorBuilds to figure out the rest of the parts list. It’s a site where people post their quadcopter builds. Some with detailed articles and photo albums of the step-by-step and others with just a short description of how it flies. But all of them have a parts list with links to vendors on them. So I ended up searching the site by the size of motors I was looking at building with and getting ideas from that on what parts I was going to buy. One build in particular I ended up being interested in was a 3″ Xilo Phreak because the guy mentioned how durable it was, and I figured as someone just starting out that getting a quad that could handle some hard crashes would be a good idea. I also liked that the Phreak frame had replaceable arms, so I figured in a worse case scenario if I crashed and broke one I wouldn’t have to rebuild the whole baseplate.

For the flight controller, I ended up going with the one mentioned in that RotorBuilds parts list. The HGLRC stack came as a combo with a four-in-one ESC and a VTX so I didn’t have to worry about them working together and the price on the full stack was just a little cheaper than what I’d have spent on separate boards.

When looking at cameras, the major factor in picking one was that I wanted to do HD capture from this quad, and a 3″ build though is too small to carry a GoPro. Plus there was the fact that I didn’t own a GoPro and I didn’t feel like spending a couple hundred dollars to get one. So I had only two choices: a RunCam Split or a Caddx Turtle. Both of these are camera and HD capture board pairs where the camera signal passes through the board first for recording, then goes to the flight controller to get the onscreen display overlay, and lastly goes to the VTX. This allows capturing HD quality video to an SD card on the quad without any analog transmission, but adds some latency to the signal. Latency is a big point of contention among pilots. It is the amount of lag between the camera on the quad capturing an image and that image showing in the pilot’s goggles. Some people seem to be able to notice and be bothered by tiny amounts of latency in that setup, and try to stay away from these types of split capture boards. I’ve never really noticed a problem with it though. I picked the Caddx because it came in black and was a slightly newer design.

The receiver and antennas were that last parts and those were pretty much a given. Since my radio uses the FrSky protocol, and I wanted telemetry on the quad, I only had one option in the R-XSR. For the antennas I had an omni and patch Axii on my goggles already so I got another omni with the same polarization for the quad build.

I was doing all of this near Easter so many of the sites were running sales. I ended up getting most of the parts from GetFpv.com. They didn’t have the receiver in stock though, so I ordered that plus a couple of batteries and a smoke stopper from RaceDayQuads.com. Then I just had to wait for everything to show up.

Here’s the final parts list:

The Jump to 64-Bits

In addition to my recent computer hardware upgrade, I also upgraded the OS jumping from Windows XP to Windows 7 RC and from 32 to 64 bits.

I’ve been a Windows XP user for a long time now, and I had no inclination to go to Vista.  The only compromise I’d made was adding some programs like Launchy to incorporate similar Vista-like UI improvements into my XP experience.  When the Windows 7 RC came out with so many rave reviews, I decided to try it out on my secondary desktop.  I have been very happy with it, and had no trouble with finding drivers for all of my existing hardware or running any of my software.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to pre-test going to 64-bits, so that was the big test on the new machine.  Fortunately, I’ve had nearly no problems.  Of course, my video card was brand new so that was an easy update from Nvidia’s site.  My printers, an old HP LaserJet 5p that I’ve had for over 10 years and an Epson Stylus Photo 820, both loaded drivers with minimal hassle.  The Epson pulled drivers from Windows update, but the LaserJet required me to grab the Universal PCL 5 drivers from the HP site.  My monitor, keyboard, mouse, game pad, DVD-ROM, and DVD-RW all loaded with no problems.  The only issue was with my Epson Precision 1650 scanner, which I was able to get working in 32-bit Windows 7 but didn’t have support for 64-bit.

I was pretty worried, based on past horror stories of moving to 64-bit Windows, both Vista and previous.  Overall though the jump to 64-bit has been painless and is definitely worth the performance gains of getting access to 6GB of RAM.  The only downside to upgrading to Windows 7 so early is that I’ll need to reinstall once the retail version is released, but I have until (I think) June next year to do it so I’m looking at it as an enforced spring cleaning for my operating systems.

Computer Upgrade

I have been wanting to upgrade my gaming PC for quite a while now.  I used to build a new machine every 3-4 years.  Each time I would try to by the latest and greatest parts and I usually managed to skip a CPU generation each time.  My current PC has been near it’s end of life for quite a while now:

  • Intel Pentium 4 3.2 Ghz
  • 4gb of RAM
  • Windows XP 32-bit
  • ATI Radeon x1950 Pro AGP

I had upgraded the memory and video card  over that last two years in an effort to delay the big upgrade.  The biggest problem was the motherboard predated PCI-E so I couldn’t upgrade to any of the current drop of high-end video cards.  And a motherboard upgrade meant that the CPU and memory both had to be upgraded.  Which all adds up to money.

It used to be that wasn’t a problem, I was single and had a well paying job, so I had quite a bit of disposable income.  Now five years later, I’m married (and my wife is not a gamer) and I have a 10 month old son, so money for upgrading a computer is not high on the priority list.  So over the last year I’d been putting a bit aside each money with the goal of building a new machine.

I hadn’t planned on building a new machine for another two months or so, but two things put me over the edge.  First, Crazy Kinux built a new machine and I started feeling like the last gamer on the planet still using a Pentium 4.  Second, I started playing the Champions Online beta and I had to turn down so many settings to get it to play smoothly that I realized I was finally too far behind the curve.

So I took gave myself a budget of $1400 and started shopping online.  After checking my back issues of PC Gamer and Maximum PC and reading some reviews online I here’s the parts list I settled on:

  • Intel i7 920
  • Asus P6T
  • 6gb RAM DDR3
  • Cooler Master Storm Sniper case
  • Silent Pro M 700W Power Supply
  • Cooler Master Hyper N520
  • EVGA GeForce GTX275
  • Seagate 3.5″ Barracuda 1.5TB SATA drive

I decided to use the on-board sound and networking, and I already have a good monitor (Dell 1907FP), keyboard and mouse.  All in all, not an extreme high-end machine, but not a budget box either.

Fry's Shopping

I intended to buy the case locally and order everything else online.  So I headed to the Fry’s here in Indianapolis to pick up the case and see how they compared on the other parts.  Turned out that Fry’s prices were as good as most of the online prices (without even accounting for shipping), so I ended up buying everything that day.  The final total was $50 bucks under my budget, and that’s not counting rebates.

I also cheated a bit by paying the service department to install the CPU and fan on the motherboard for me.  I hate working with thermal paste and after seeing the directions involved on installing the fan, I decided that was the best $10 I’ve ever spent.

Here’s a few shots of all the beautiful boxes (click to enlarge).

Case and Motherboard

CPU, PSU, Fan and Drive

GPU

Motherboard with CPU

After I unboxed the case and started to install the mounting screws, I ran into my first problem.  There was no IO shield in the parts bag from the motherboard.  I made a quick call to Fry’s and was told I would probably have to return the motherboard, which meant removing the CPI and fan.  I was not happy about the situation as I drove back to Fry’s, but when I got there customer service allowed me to take an IO shield from another box already setup for a return.  So at least I had a quick resolution and a happier drive home.

IO Shield
Lot of trouble for such a small part.

Fortunately the rest of the build went pretty smoothly.  The Cooler Master case was a joy to build in, completely tool-less for everything except mounting the mother board and some really nice, large fans.  It also has a nice set of USB and audio jacks on top along with a power button and a fan control.  It also has a set of blue LED’s in each of the fans and there’s a button on the fan control to turn them on and off.

img2009-08-29-16.47.12
Geek's version of Black Beauty

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Completely tool-free for all drive and card installation.

Three 120 MM fans in the case.
Three 120 MM fans in the case.

Not a professional wiring job, but good enough.
Not a professional wiring job, but good enough.

The Final Product
The Final Product

It's Alive
It's Alive!