Updated 12/22/2017: Updated the guide to include the latest trends and technology. Overhauled the recommendations section to become a listing of popular quadcopter manufacturers.
So you’ve watched the YouTube videos, you’re excited, and you’re looking into building yourself a racing miniquad. The first thing you want to decide upon is what frame you are going to use. Let’s get right into it:
What does the frame I choose affect?
The miniquad frame is generally going to be a set of carbon fiber plates that holds the flying vehicle together. It will be your frame choice that determines how and where you place the rest of the components of your miniquad, and how the end product ends up looking. It is also the frame that determines how well your precious aircraft holds up against the numerous crashes that are surely coming for it.
Contrary to what many think, the miniquad frame you choose has very little effect on the flight performance of your miniquad. This is because there are only two effects that a frame can have on a flying object in the first place: weight and aerodynamics. Most quads actually have pretty much the same shape when looked at from the perspective of the air flowing over them, so aerodynamics is not really a factor. That leaves you with weight.
What makes a good frame?
Rather than write a wall of text extolling all of the factors that you should consider when buying a frame, let’s list them out:
- Aesthetics – There’s not much to say here other than that we think this is the most important deciding factor when building a miniquad. You should build a quadcopter that you like aesthetically. Choose your favorite frame! If you are passionate about something, none of the factors below really matters all that much.b
- Arm Layout – “Arm layout” refers to how the quadcopters arms extend from the body of the quadcopter. The angles the arms make change the leverage that the motors have on certain flight axis’. For example, quadcopters that are fatter than they are long will have a more sensitive roll axis. This effect is significantly dampened by good flight controller software, however.
The arms all come from the center of the quad’s body and form a 90 degree angle to each other.
The arms all come from the center of the quad’s body, but one arm-to-arm angle is wider than the other (usually the front and rear angles are wider)
The arms generally originate from each end of the quad’s body (front and rear).
- Arm Size – The arm size refers to the length of the arm. It determines what kind of props you can use. Different miniquads may have different prop restrictions. Make sure you check the quad you are buying. Here is a general rule of thumb though:
- under 200mm – Only supports 4″ props
- 200mm through 215mm – Generally supports 5″ props and under
- 225mm through 250mm – Generally supports 6″ props and under
- Body Layout – This should actually read “whether or not the quad has an elongated body or a pod”. “Pod” quads like the Krieger or Shrike, have all of the electronics stuffed into a tower sitting in the center of the quad. “Normal” elongated-body quads have a long carbon-fiber section between the left and right arms that holds all of the electronics.
Aerodynamics – In 2017, miniquad frame designers finally started focusing on aerodynamics. This is a relief as prior designs are about as aerodynamically inefficient as can be designed (a flat plate). Here are the ways aerodynamics are added:
- Fairings – Many racing quadcopters will come with 3D printed or molded fiberglass fairings. These fairings slip over the body of the quadcopter to streamline it.
- Arm Orientation – Vertically oriented arms provide an enormous improvement to aerodynamics. Instead of providing drag and downforce, vertical arms provide lift, causing the quadcopter to almost “fly” like a plane. Manufacturer Karearea popularized this type of design.
- Camera Tilt – Camera tilt changes the natural pitch angle that you will fly your quadcopter at. In turn, this affects the speed that the quadcopter will want to fly at. There are diminishing returns after 45 degrees, but some pilots like tilts up to 60 degrees. The ideal frame will support a camera tilt from 0 degrees to 60 degrees. Many frames these days do not easily support level or low camera angles – stay away from these if you are a beginner.
Component Layout – How the components are expected to be laid out can have a big effect on what qucomponents you can buy or put onto the quad. Some quads like the Shrike or XBR are extremely small and restrictive, whereas others like the Alien or the Chameleon have a ton of room inside of the body where you can add pretty much anything you want. One aspect of the component layout that may be of particular concern to you is where the battery is to be attached. For beginners, it is better to have top-mounted batteries, keeping them out of the way when you crash. For more compact, lighter-weight racing quads, though, you will need to strap the battery to the bottom.
- Component Compatibility – Many quadcopter frames are designed for specific components. Here are some things you should look for, in particular:
- Flight controller stack: does the frame support the number of boards you want in your stack? Most frames are designed to support two boards (generally a flight controller and a PDB), but you may also want a VTX or a 4-in-1 ESC in the stack as well.
- VTX: How does the VTX antenna mount to the frame? Some frames have mounting points for specific VTX’s, while others have mounts that require VTX’s with pigtails.
- FPV Camera: There are two major brands of FPV Camera, Runcam and Foxeer. Runcam cameras have special mounting points that Foxeer cameras do not. If your frame was designed for a Runcam, make sure you get one!
- ESC: Many frames these days have super-thin arms which will not support ESCs. You must purchase a 4-in-1 ESC with these frames.
- Durability – The design of your frame will have the biggest effect on how much money you spend in the hobby, especially as a beginner. Here are some things to look at:
- Is the frame made from carbon fiber? If not, expect it to break A LOT.
- Is the carbon fiber of the arms 4mm thick? This is the golden standard for miniquads. Thicker is more durable but is generally too heavy to bother with. You should only consider thinner if you are experienced and specifically want to save weight.
- Do the arms have holes or cut outs in them? This is generally a no-no. Cut-outs add significant stress points which will cause your arms to break. A well designed frame will not have these weaknesses – but if you are ordering direct from a Chinese firm, be wary and do your research.
- Is the flight controller fully enclosed with carbon fiber? FC’s are not structural items. If your flight controller is exposed, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be breaking it.
- Is your FPV camera exposed? The best new frames completely enclose the FPV camera in carbon fiber. Like flight controllers, they do NOT take a beating well and cost a lot to replace.
- Does the frame have separate arm plates or are the arms built into the body? Unibodies cost much more to replace than broken arms.They also generally look better – it’s a trade off.
- HD Camera Options – The option to mount an HD camera like a GoPro or a Mobius on a miniquad appeals to many. If this is something you want, make sure that there is either a mount built into the frame or that you can 3-D print one.
- Parts Availability – The ability to actually repair your quad is pretty important. Most of the frames on the lists below are pretty durable, but when you slam headfirst into concrete, it really sucks to be out of the air for a month or more. “Parts Availability” actually has two factors:
- Does your frame have parts available from a vendor in your country? International shipping always takes longer than domestic, no matter where you live.
- Are the parts regularly available or out of stock? If you notice the parts are constantly out of stock, you may want to consider buying spares as soon as they become available so you are never “stuck”.
- Price – The price of some of the nicer frames of late has exploded to as high as $200. It’s definitely pretty hard to justify that expense for a set of carbon fiber plates and aluminum screws. Luckily, there are still plenty of manufacturers that offer frames at more reasonable prices. The cost of parts should also factor into this. Expect to break an arm or two over the lifetime of your quad, at the least.
- Weight – This is going to be the primary driver for performance that your frame can contribute to the whole equation. The less your frame weighs, the more of the thrust from your four motors can be spent rocketing you into the sky. Weight is saved by using less hardware (screws/washers/nuts) and by making everything as small and compact as possible.
Miniquad frame manufacturers list
Below you will find a list of reputable frame manufacturers with a brief description of the frames they have designed and what makes them special. We’ve included a table with average prices, physical location and notable products. Many manufacturers also offer pre-built, or “RTF” versions of their products. We have indicated where this is the case.
Unlike many other miniquad components, there is not a small subset of “correct choices” when it comes to frames. There are tens, if not hundreds of very good frames on the market. If you are feeling up to it, you should see if you can find something unique to try out. If you are getting in the hobby, though, you definitely cannot go wrong with these manufacturers. Please keep in mind that here at Propwashed, we’re a pretty small group of friends who have collectively only owned a few miniquad frames. With that said, we may have bias in these recommendations, but we have attempted to do some due diligence on frames outside of our immediate knowledge.
Armattan has a great line-up of almost every type of miniquad, and are known for the “lifetime warranty” that they offer with all of their quads. Essentially, if you crash the quad and break some carbon fiber, they will provide replacement parts free of charge.
Armattan seems to have taken the world by storm with their Chameleon – every flying field we go to has at least one guy flying one. They have a new model coming out which improves upon the Chameleon design called the “Rooster” – stay tuned!
|Notable Models||Chameleon; Rooster; F-1|
|Vendor Location||Asia & USA|
|Price||Average-High ($90-$140) (Free parts)|
BoltRC is an Australian frame designer that has a line of extremely lightweight, compact H-frames. They are also coming out with the “Kraken”, a high speed 6″ True-X racing frame, in the near future. Their “Race” frames are unibody frames that are extremely lightweight. The “black ops” frames are similar to their race frames, but have separable arms which makes crashing easier on the wallet.
While Bolt does not have a huge presences in the USA, this author has a sweet spot for their frames. The Bolt 210, in particular, is my favorite frame design of all time… so far.
|Notable Models||Bolt 210; Kraken|
Catalyst Machineworks has a collection of really well-designed X-frame quads. The way they mount the battery on their SpeedAddict frame is really clever and makes the fully outfitted quad very easy to balance.
|Notable Models||Superlight; Merica; Speedaddict|
These guys have a TON of frames on the market, and just recently started up a lifetime warranty program a la Armattan. Their prices are also quite reasonable. Definitely worth checking out.
As a side note, they put a fun and somewhat relevant frame selection chart up here.
|Notable Models||Aether; Cerberus; Canis|
Hyperlite frames focus on low weight and low cost. They also sell MultiGP “spec” frames, which could become a racing standard someday.
|Notable Models||Floss; Evo|
Impulse RC is the designer of the famous Warp Quad, which is the 3rd person miniquad that was featured in a famous youtube video that went viral a couple of years ago. In 2015, they came out with the Alien, an FPV miniquad, to great acclaim. It is a very well designed miniquad that offers a great compromise between the pod-based True-X designs and the convenience of the ZMR-style H-quads.
In August 2016, the Helix was announced – a true-X frame from Impulse RC that comes packaged with a VTX and flight controller. This continues the trend of very high quality, well-engineered quads from Impulse but adds an offering for the true racer looking for light weight simplicity.
The latest model was announced in late 2017, the Reverb. It is a lighter and smaller Alien in looks, but is also substantially cheaper in price.
|Notable Models||Reverb; Alien; Helix; Warpquad|
|Vendor Locations||Australia & USA|
|RTF Options||Yes (through Rotor Riot)|
Karearea has carved a niche out for itself in the drone world by manufacturing carbon fiber frames with vertical arms. This design has substantial aerodynamic benefits, but can be a real pain to build around.
|Notable Models||Kea; Tora; Talon|
|Vendor Locations||Australia & USA|
|RTF Options||Yes (through Rotor Riot)|
Lumenier is a well known vendor probably best known for sponsoring several pilots including Skitzo and Charpu, who fly their QAV line of miniquads. They carry a full line of H- and X-quads.
|Notable Models||QAV-X; QAV 210|
Shendrones (Krieger, Mitsuko, Tweaker)
Shendrones is the brand name of Andy Chen – a really cocky fellow who has an undoubtedly sharp mind for quadcopter designs.
In his store, he sells a lot of unique frame designs. In the past, he has focused on small size, light weight and durability. He also has some incredibly cool looking frames that don’t have any functional benefits.
|Notable Models||Shrieker; Rapture; Corgi; Many more..|
Skull and Drones
Skull and Drones manufactures frames out of the UK. The calling card of his frames are the lightening holes found all over the frame body and arms. These holes were designed in to have very little effect on the durability – a great asset for those who want the lightest possible frame.
|Notable Models||Hooligan; Rampage|
The ZMR is heavily based on the “original” massively popular miniquad frame – the Blackout. If you want to fly racing quadcopter history, get yourself a ZMR. While it is pretty heavy and missing a few features by today’s standards, ZMR’s can still be bought for almost no money and offer you a ton of space inside of the body to add whatever parts you could possibly want.
|Notable Models||ZMR; ZMR-X; ZMR 210|
So here’s the deal – every time a popular frame hits the market, clones of that frame start showing up in the big Chinese retailers like Banggood or Gearbest. These frames will often look very similar to the frames they are cloning but cost 1/4 of the price or less. Unfortunately, most they are not true clones and will throw out some of the design elements that require more complicated tooling or expensive hardware to bring the price down. The most common design element thrown out is the adjustable camera mounts – a real shame.
Wherever possible, we recommend you buy from the original designers of any given frame. Not only does this send money to these designers so they can continue their work – it also buys you a quality frame with customer support. We do realize that many prospective pilots have a hard time with the initial investment in the hobby. If you are trying to stretch your money as far as possible and don’t like any of the cheaper options found above, a clone frame might be a good option to look into.
These are just some of the most popular frames on the market. They have all been flown for hundreds if not thousands of hours and have dedicated RCGroups threads that will link you with fellow enthusiasts for build advice. As you might suspect, though, there is a huge number of vendors who want to make money from printing some sheets of carbon fiber out for you. This is not to say that these frames are “bad” at all – just outside of our immediate knowledge here at propwashed. A friendly user on Reddit, /r/BallistoFPV, has maintained an awesome spreadsheet of frames here. Check this out if you are looking for something more unique.
UAVFutures did a great video on this same topic:
http://www.yeggi.com/ – Great place to search for 3D print designs for camera mounts and other gear for your frame.
Like this buyer’s guide? Check out some of other ones!