Before you buy your first racing drone, you need to make a few key decisions that will guide some of your purchases moving forward. In this article we will cover the different components that will “lock you in” to certain future purchases.
To be clear up front – there are really no “wrong” choices here. These are simply equipment choices you should be aware of that will impact some of your purchase decisions in the future.
Your radio transmitter selection determines the receivers you buy
One of the most important purchases you can make early on is your radio transmitter. Investing in a top of the line product has the potential to live with you for the rest of your career in RC – even if you want to pilot crafts other than quads! On the other hand, cheaper models might work OK for quads, but may lack the features you’ll want, such as the ability to add-on radio modules. Some cheap radios have poor-quality components that fail early and budget radios always have poor resale value.
Additionally, the brand of transmitter you choose determines the receivers you use on your quad. Your radio transmitter transmits information to the receiver on your quad. Put as simply as possible, these two devices need to be the same brand to talk to one another. If you buy an FrSky radio transmitter then you are going to need to buy an FrSky receiver for your quad. If you do decide to go for a cheaper radio, we recommend you decide which brand you want to use long term and buy the cheap offering of from that brand. If you decide to upgrade in the future, you will only need to change out your radio.
This doesn’t just apply to building your own quad. If you purchase an ARF or RTF quad, you will notice the receiver option is a choice when adding the product to your cart! You want to make sure that your selection matches back to your transmitter.
If you’re curious about things to look for when deciding which radio transmitter to buy, we recommend you check out our radio transmitter buyers guide. This article covers everything you need to look for when buying a transmitter as well as some of our recommendations.
Your flight controller selection can lock you into using certain software
If you are just starting your research into the hobby, you may have run into software names including Betaflight, Butterflight, Raceflight, and possibly many more. Software installed on our flight controller determines how our quadcopter flies. While there are many different software suites available, you can only run one of these at a time.
Due to the community driven nature of the hobby, the software that run our drones is constantly changing. These platforms are constantly being updated for improvements or evolving into something entirely new. Teams split off and create their own thing and gain traction and sometimes teams disband completely and code repositories start to languish.
The software development in the hobby is a mix of open source projects and closed course projects. We talk a bit more about the differences in this article, but the gist is how transparent the code is to see and adjust to the public.
Some flight controllers lock you into using certain software. For example, if you want to fly Raceflight, then you will need to buy a flight controller that specifically supports it. The same goes for KISS software — you must use a Flyduino flight controller. The Betaflight firmware that we recommend on this site has more broad support, but that support is not universal.
As the software and community support for it changes, so do your purchase options for flight controllers. Starting out, we recommend you try to find a flight controller that has Betaflight support. This is by far the most popular firmware used by the community and if you are looking for help (from our site, for example), Betaflight is going to be your best bet. As you get further into the hobby, you might want to dabble with different software to take advantage of a new feature exclusive to one brand, but until you get some experience under your belt, you should stick with the community favorite. For now, that is absolutely Betaflight.
Your frame can restrict what you can add on in the future
While we feel frames are a minor part of the overall component selection process, your frame can limit the equipment you can include in your build.
For example, you may not be able to fit a larger flight stack into a low profile frame. While frames like Armattan’s Chameleon are all the rage right now, their low profile makes it very difficult to fit in a ton of extra components.
Similarly, if you want to film HD video using a GoPro or equivalent action camera, make sure there is room for that camera on top of the frame! Many smaller true-x style frames have very little room for safely securing a GoPro. If capturing video is important to you, then this is definitely a consideration. Even if you go with an internal solution for capturing HD video like the Runcam Split, you can run into the low profile frame problem trying to fit it into your flight stack.
On the other hand, bulky, heavy frames may not be the best idea if you want to get into performance racing where every gram of weight counts. Sure, you can fit in basically any component you want, but you will sacrifice mobility and speed. With frames it really comes down to what you want to get out of your flying sessions.
Before your purchase, put together a mental checklist of things you want to do with your quadcopter. Try to find a frame that best matches your goals. Or pick the sexiest one — whichever.
Community acceptance: niche products are harder to troubleshoot!
Troubleshooting the community favorite will be significantly easier than going against the grain.
For example, there are a ton of guides and threads on the FrSky Taranis X9D because it is so widely used in the community. The downside is that it is a big up-front investment at around ~$200. While there are cheaper radios that will work great for most pilots, finding extensive troubleshooting guides, articles, and forum threads might be harder.
Thus, if you do find a bargain deal on a relatively unknown product, do some google searching before adding it to your cart. See if there are some threads on RC groups, review articles on sites like ours, or other material for troubleshooting. Consult buyers guides and other data. We can tell you from experience – it can really suck trying to troubleshoot a product with no community sourced information online.
When peicing together your first build, it’s not a bad idea to find a popular pro and simply copy what he is buying. Chances are that many others are using the same equipment.
Do your homework before purchasing!
The main takeaway here is there is no “wrong” decision. Rather, just be aware that certain component or equipment choices will determine your future purchase decisions. Radio transmitters and flight controllers are especially worth researching, as they tend to lock you in to certain brands or software.
Finally, while the unheard of budget quad or component may work great, finding help when you need it may be tough. Doing your research and figuring out what works best for you is key before spending your hard-earned money on brand new components!
To start your research, we recommend checking out our component buyers guide pages. We put together a guide for every component you will run across in the hobby. These articles are broken up into two parts – the first outlining what you should look for when buying and the second giving some of our recommendations.