Currently in the FPV drone market, you can buy or build a 5” quad copter for anywhere between $100 to $500. Pilots have an immense choice of parts, some of which are quality FPV drone electronics, others are not. In this article, I’ll discuss which key components you should be putting your money towards to build a performance drone.
The first thing I would like to clarify is this: There is a difference between a component being cheap, and it being low-quality. As a generalization, higher-priced branded quality FPV drone electronics will outperform lower priced electronics. In most cases, however, it is reasonable to assume that a higher priced branded part will be a quality electrical component. Low priced parts can also be quality FPV drone electronics however it can often be quite a hit and miss game when searching for them.
Low-quality FPV drone electronics are something I never recommend purchasing, regardless of their low cost. They may be cheap at the time of purchase however they are characteristically prone to early electrical or mechanical failure. Purchasing drone parts is like buying a pair of leather boots. Would you rather they cost $100 and last a year or $500 and last a decade?
Affordable (or low to mid tier) quality FPV drone electronics do exist however they usually require more research and review reading to determine their quality. Affordable quality FPV drone electronics tend to work quite well however their overall performance is often lower than their more expensive counterparts due to trade-offs in materials or electronics in favor of affordability.
Essentially there is only so much performance you can extract out of a race quad, and the more expensive electronics usually have more applied research to gain that extra performance. The expensive electronics will generally use higher quality materials and higher precision manufacturing. The downside to this is that research, development and quality manufacturing all costs more money. But for good reasons.
The best thing about this hobby is that a pilot running a $200 quad copter with carefully picked affordable quality FPV drone electronics can be quite competitive and consistently beat pilots running more expensive setups if they are a more skilled pilot. Race results are based more around who is the better pilot than who has the biggest wallet (although having both would be nice).
With that said, why should you spend more money on the expensive quality FPV gear rather than buying the cheaper quality components? The answer to that varies from component to component, but your general answer is performance…. Peak performance. If you drew a cost/performance graph of FPV drone electronics, it would look somewhat like the estimated cost/performance diagram below. For my fellow math enthusiasts out there, yes, that is a logistic growth function. The more expensive the component, the closer it gets to that theoretical maximum performance. For a camera, that is defined as a perfectly sharp image with exquisite dynamic range. For a motor, it would be described as high efficiency, torque, and durability in the lightest possible package. The disadvantage to this is that once you begin reaching peak performance, the bonus performance received for the extra component cost becomes lower and lower.
With the non linear relationship between cost and performance, it is quite often the case in the hobby that you can get ~80% of the performance of the top tier parts for ~50% of the cost. An example of this rule would be the Immersion-RC Rapid-Fire versus the Clearview module (Iftron tech hurry up, I want my module). The advantage of this sport, however, is that ~80% is still often more performance than most pilots need. It is possible in theory to run a quad around a complex track permanently at full throttle; however, nobody to my knowledge has achieved that. It is not until you begin getting into the top tiers of the sport that the absolute highest performance gear is required, semi-regardless of cost.
Another important fact of quad racing is that there are also a lot of performance gains to be made in optimizations to your gear setups such as motor/propeller combination and tuning. Just slapping the best of everything together will result in a fast race quad but extracting the maximum performance out of gear is an art in itself. Performance, however, isn’t just about having a fast drone, it is also about having a drone with durability, agility, component longevity and efficiency.
Quality FPV Drone Electronics
I’ll now go over the key FPV drone components discussing the notable differences between the varying component tiers.
Receivers come in many different price ranges. I would always recommend buying a receiver of the same brand as your transmitter or transmitter protocol. Off-brand receivers will function, however, I would always prefer to pay a few more dollars for guaranteed reliability as a failsafe is quite undesirable.
Flight controllers (FC’s) of varying price points should fly almost identically as they utilize the same STM32 processors. The notable advantages of mid-range to top-tier FC’s are their improvements in quality control, vibration damping, solder pad layout and commonly, their use of higher quality electronics. In comparison, the cheap low-quality FC’s have been known to have their components unreliably hand soldered and are quite prone to electrical failures. In most cases with FC’s, what you pay for is what you get. I would recommend always buying flight controllers from reputable resellers such as GetFPV. Products sold by these companies are almost guaranteed to be quality FPV drone electronics.
Motors are also a component where you also usually get what you pay for. Expensive top tier motors tend to use high-quality materials such as high purity copper (or even silver coated) windings, strong magnets, and thin stator laminations. More affordable mid to low range motors in comparison tend to sacrifice durability, efficiency or reliability to varying degrees. Usually, they perform quite well in flight however it is characteristic for them to consume more current or hold up worse in impacts. Personally, I have found that the mid-range ~$20 motors are a good balance between affordability and performance however the top tier motors are noticeably better. Quality motors characteristically have specifications including 0.1mm stator laminations, strong N52 magnets, Japanese NSK bearings and steel/titanium motor shafts.
Speed controllers are usually worth spending a decent amount on. Affordable quality ESC’s will work quite well however the higher priced ESC’s typically have less noise, more reliability, and the latest features/ESC protocols. Some ESC’s also include heat sinks which is a desirable feature as it allows for better heat dissipation which ultimately improves ESC reliability. Quality ESC’s usually start at ~$35 for 4-in-1’s and ~$10 for singular’s. A top tier ESC will most likely cost over double those prices and is set to continue increasing as drones become more power hungry.
Of all the different parts of a drone, the video transmitter is the quality FPV drone electrical component where it is worth buying a mid-range to top-tier model. Cheaper video transmitters characteristically will broadcast significantly more noise than higher quality models. They also have the tendency to ‘leak’ their broadcast video partially onto surrounding video channels. When flying alone, there isn’t a problem with using a cheap video transmitter with these characteristics however it is when you are flying with other pilots that these properties become unfavorable.
A ‘leaky’ or ‘noisy’ video transmitter at an event will cause interference on other pilots channels which directly affects their racing. I consider it common courtesy to use a quality FPV component VTX at race events to improve everyone’s experience. I would recommend quality VTX’s from TBS and Immersion-RC. Quality VTX’s usually range from ~$20 to ~$50 and include features such as smart audio and inbuilt voltage regulators.
The quality of a camera is perhaps the easiest to judge as you will spend hours viewing its video feed. The advantages of a quality camera are the noticeable improvements in image sharpness, contrast, dynamic range and response to changing lighting. For example, comparing DVR of my Foxeer Predator to my no-brand camera, the image quality was night and day! Quality FPV cameras can be purchased for anywhere between $20 to $50. I would always recommend looking at a DVR of a specific camera before purchasing it to make your own judgement of its performance. The higher tier cameras tend to apply more analogue processing effects to their images which ultimately makes them look outstanding compared to lower end cameras.
As electrical components rapidly change, so does the best components to buy. For the best up to date FPV electrical component recommendations, I would personally recommend reading through Joshua Bardwell’s Ultimate FPV Shopping List.
To conclude, I would say you should invest in the higher-tier electrical components where it is in your budget. If your budget is as high as the moon, top-tier electronics are the way to go. If you do not want to entirely splurge on electronics, I would recommend at least purchasing a mid-range to top-tier VTX. I would then distribute the remaining budget amongst motors, ESC’s, the FC, the camera, and the receiver (in that order of priority). Drones can be expensive to build but in the long run, one built from quality FPV electronics will outlast one built with cheap components and will ultimately make the hobby a more enjoyable experience. Now with all this new knowledge, go out there and build yourself the best performing quadcopter you can!