Just a few years ago, owning an FPV quadcopter meant designing and building an FPV quadcopter. Today, there’s an abundance of choice for ready-to-fly quads that perform extremely well. So what’s the better, buying or building?
Each route has different advantages and disadvantages. Mostly these come in the form of time and the amount of knowledge you need to get started, but there are a lot of nuances to be aware of.
Buying a new drone off the shelf provides you with peace of mind that all parts are compatible, functional, and everything is professionally assembled. This is a great place to start if your skills are a bit weak and you want to get flying! Even if you’re skilled at building, this is a big time-saver. Prebuilt quads are often very reasonably priced, too.
But buying a fully-assembled drone doesn’t shield you entirely from needing to know how things work. Most “RTF” drones are simply the drone itself. Only a complete kit that includes goggles, controller, drone, batteries, and charger is truly usable without prior knowledge. These do exist, but are typically limited to these micro drone kits. Larger quads are not usually sold as a kit but may be bundled with these other items from a retailer. If you’re getting just the drone, be aware that not all systems work together. For example, an HD drone using the DJI system requires owning DJI goggles.
When you buy without a controller, make sure you make the quad’s control receiver to the system you already have. For example, you need a Spektrum radio (or a module that supports it) to use a Spektrum receiver. Some built drones don’t come with a control receiver at all and you have to add your own. These are usually labeled as ARF, or “almost ready to fly” or PNP “plug and play”. A quad that does have a receiver might be labeled as RTF “ready to fly” or BNF “bind and fly”. If you’re unsure, definitely ask an experienced pilot for help. It’s more common for smaller quads to be sold with a receiver (RTF) as they are often built in. Larger quads are very often sold without one (ARF).
Fully assembled drones are often a bit more expensive than other options because you’re paying for the labor of assembly.
- NewBeeDrone AcroBee Lite RTF Kit
- EMAX TinyHawk II Freestyle FPV Drone RTF Kit with Goggles and Controller
- BETAFPV FPV Whoop Racing Advanced Kit V2 (Frsky D8)
- Lumenier QAV-R 2 HD Deadcat Freestyle Quadcopter RTF w/ DJI Digital HD FPV System
- Mr Steele Apex 5″ Quadcopter RTF Bundle (6s)
- Lumenier Chief Racing 5″ Quadcopter RTF Bundle – (Note: no control transmitter is available in this bundle)
Drone with Control Receiver (RTF)
- BETAFPV TWIG XL 3” FPV Toothpick Quadcopter
- Holybro Kopis CineWhoop 3″ w/ Frsky (Analog VTx version)
- XILO Phreakstyle Slam 6S Freestyle Quadcopter RTF
Drone without Control Receiver (ARF/PNP)
- iFlight Nazgul5 V2 5″ FPV Freestyle RTF – BNF
- Diatone Roma F5 5″ Freestyle Quadcopter w/ Runcam Phoenix 2 FPV Camera – PNP
- HGLRC Sector 5 V3 5″ Freestyle FPV Racing Drone (w/ GPS & Caddx Ratel FPV Camera) – PNP
Building from Parts
For many hobbyists, choosing parts and assembling a drone from the ground up is as much fun as flying it. This is a fantastic way to gain a lot of useful skills and knowledge about physics, electronics, tools, and more. But to be brutally honest, this method is difficult!
To build an FPV freestyle or racing drone, you’ll need:
- Flight controller
- 4 Electronic Speed Controllers (ESC)
- 4 Motors
- 4 Propellers (2 CW, 2 CCW)
- Flight camera
- Video transmitter (VTx)
- Control receiver
To make things more complicated, some parts are combined together such as 4-in-1 ESCs, FC + ESC + VTx “stacks”, or VTx + camera units. Many of these are not compatible with each other due to size and shape, electronic requirements, or communication protocols. There’s so much knowledge needed in parts selection that this route is not recommended for beginners.
In addition, you’ll need a lot of tools. Wire cutters, hex drivers, soldering iron, solder, and flux are non-negotiable. Others such as scissors, tweezers, pliers, and a heat gun can be hugely helpful. These tools are useful for other electronics work and for repairs, but if you don’t have any already it’s a significant investment.
The advantage is that you end up with exactly the quadcopter that you want. It’s built to your own specifications, and you know exactly what each part is, what it does, and what options exist to replace or upgrade it. And there’s huge satisfaction in designing, building, and flying something from the ground up.
Buying parts can be the least expensive option, but not necessarily. Great deals can be had for sure—but if you buy from multiple vendors to get specific parts, shipping costs can stack up. And if you select the wrong part, or break it during assembly, you might have to buy another.
Building a Kit
An in-between option is to purchase a kit of preselected parts. These kits are a bit less common but offer a nice balance between being able to build it yourself and staying away from the parts-selection rabbit hole. You’ll need all of the tools, skills, and knowledge to assemble the kit on your own, but there’s no need to worry about parts compatibility. A build kit like this can often be assembled in an afternoon or two. Build kits are often pretty reasonably priced as well; there are economies of scale but less labor hours, so a build kit is often the least expensive route.
Build kits also sit in the middle of the risk spectrum. On one hand, you’ll know the parts work together and will not, for example, send the wrong voltage through and fry the others. On the other, you can still hook things up wrong if you’re not paying attention. A few kits such as the Xilo Phreakstyle JB Kit have extensive articles and video series published about them so you can simply follow along.
- XILO 5″ Freestyle Beginner Drone Bundle – Joshua Bardwell Edition
- XILO Phreakstyle Complete ARF Bundle
- iFlight TurboBee 160RS DIY Build Kit
The Long Game
Freestyle and racing quadcopters are designed for high speed and high maneuverability. Pushing their limits is part of the culture. At some point, you’re definitely going to break it. What then?
If you’ve assembled the quad on your own, it’s likely that you’ll be able to determine the issue and fix it much faster. You already know what the parts should look like, where they go, and how they are connected. Visually inspecting your drone is far faster when you know what you’re supposed to be seeing. Once you’ve identified the part, you’re likely to understand how to remove it, and what to buy to replace it. And not to be overlooked—you’ll already own all of the tools needed to do this.
If you’ve bought your quad assembled, you’re in for a much more difficult time. You may not understand how to determine what’s wrong and spend a lot of time talking to experts and support representatives. Instead of just ordering a new part, you may need to purchase a tool to be able to extract and replace the old one. In the end, you can’t stay in the hobby for too long without a desire to know and understand how your machine works.
Whether to build or buy comes down to time, skill, and preference. Pre-built is certainly faster, but you don’t get the satisfaction of doing it yourself or a good understanding of what goes into the aircraft. Building from parts requires tools, knowledge, and a fair amount of time, but you get exactly the parts you want and a much easier time making the inevitable repairs.
As a brand new pilot with no knowledge, building from scratch can be very difficult. And if you have no tools, expensive! I’d recommend staying away from choosing individual parts for a first quadcopter. However, build kits are a fabulous way to get into every piece of the hobby from assembly to flight. Just getting in and flying as quickly as possible can be a good route, too—especially if you don’t know whether you’ll want to stay in for the long term. Comprehensive micro quad kits for indoor flying may be the best option if that’s the case.
New pilots may appreciate not needing to develop assembly skills or purchase tools, but eventually this catches up with everyone. Not understanding your machine or being able to repair it simply isn’t compatible with the racing and freestyle culture—finding the limits always requires going past them at first. To stay in you’ll need to know how to build and repair. Fortunately there are loads of great websites, videos, and communities that can help every step of the way. Be sure to spend some time in the Build Logs and Guides section of this very site!