By Bob Hammell
One of the first things you should probably look at before you begin, on your journey of building your quadcopter, is the quadcopter transmitter that you will be using to fly your drone. It is not uncommon for RC quadcopter beginners to ask how they should go about choosing a quadcopter transmitter that is, at the very least, decent.
In this article, we will discuss the basics of an RC transmitter and what exactly you should look for when buying. Unlike other parts of RC quadcopters, there isn’t a whole lot of room for you to Do It Yourself. So it’s common to just buy a quadcopter transmitter that is already commercially available and set up. However, there are a few things you should know about how quadcopter transmitters function before you should start discussing the cost of one.
When you buy RTF quadcopters like the Phantom 4/Typhoon H/Walkera Scout/3DR Solo/etc you don’t have to worry about this as they come with their own transmitter. You can find reviews for most of the ones we mentioned, as well as others, here. The Airdog Action Sports drone doesn’t even come with a transmitter as we know it but with a tiny control unit as that quadcopter flies mainly autonomous.
So I won’t be talking about those this time. Instead, I’ll just focus on quadcopter RC transmitters for those of you that want to build their own quad.
When talking about a RC quadcopter transmitter, one of the terms you will hear a lot is “Channel”. Each channel on an RC transmitter for quadcopters allows you to control one individual thing on the aircraft so that you can get full functionality out of your quadcopter. An example would be having one channel for the throttle, one channel for pitching forward and backward, one channel for turning left and right and one channel for rolling left and right.
On a quadcopter, four channels are the minimum you should have on your RC transmitter and these are for the pitch, throttle, roll, and yaw. Any less than that and you won’t be flying for very long before you crash into something because you can’t maneuver the quadcopter out of the way of an object.
With more than just four channels you can even have potentiometers or a switch to change settings on the quadcopter when you are even in the middle of flying. Some fly controllers such as the Arducopter or Multiwii recommend using transmitters that contain at least 5 channels so that the extra channel can be used for switching between different flight modes.
A 5 channel RC quadcopter transmitter may typically contain a handle to carry it, an antenna for controlling the quadcopter at long distances, a landing gear switch, rudder control, throttle, elevator and another channel for aileron which is a hinged flight control for helping you turn the quadcopter. There are many different quadcopter transmitters you can purchase and a decent one could cost you upwards of $70 but if you want to get the most out of your quadcopter it would be best not to skimp out on one.
Quadcopter transmitter modes
A RC quadcopter transmitter usually has two different modes , mode 1 and mode 2 . They are basically just a different control configuration.
Mode 1 configuration has the throttle on the right joystick and pitch control on the left. Mode 2 is, interestingly enough, the most common configuration for quadcopters. This mode has the sticks reversed which puts throttle on the left joystick and pitch on the right one.
Because of this you’ll often find that the left joystick only self-centers in the left/right axis and clicks in the up or down axis in order to enable the throttle setting. The right joystick, on the other hand, self-centers in both axis.
Usually a receiver will come with the transmitter when you buy it.. This means that you should always be aware that some transmitters are only compatible with their own receivers. They have to be of the same brand and same model, meaning third party versions will not be compatible. So when the receiver is broken, you will have to purchase the exact same model from the same brand.
There are only a few exceptions to this. These are usually called universal RC transmitters and they will be able to pair with (some) other receivers. Either way, you should make sure to check and ask the shop before you buy so you won’t be unpleasantly surprised.
Which quadcopter transmitter to buy?
So what type of RC transmitter should you buy?
Well, the price range is huge when it comes to RC transmitters. A RC transmitter can cost as little as $20 or as much as over $1,000.
It goes without saying that the cheaper the RC transmitter is, the lower quality it will generally be and the fewer channels it is going to come with.
Still, this is not always a bad thing. If you are a beginner who is just starting out, it would be a wise decision to just get a cheap 5 or 6 channel RC transmitter. That way you can get used to flying a quadcopter without getting overwhelmed.
You can upgrade to a more sophisticated and expensive quadcopter transmitter once you know a bit more about flying UAVs.
It is also a good idea to have a backup transmitter. So, you could purchase two cheap transmitters or one cheap one and a more expensive one. For now the expensive one can function as the back up and, after you have gotten used to piloting the quadcopter, you can use it to replace the basic transmitter.
If you already know that you are getting in this for the long run and that you are serious about quadcopters, you will probably want to get a RC transmitter with at least 8 channels. That way you’ll also be able to use it as you grow as a pilot and want to relay more controls. If that’s your case it might be better to skip the cheap models entirely and prevent outgrowing your quadcopter transmitter and having to buy a new one.
A RC transmitter is without a doubt a long term investment. So if you are just trying quadcopters and are not completely sure how long you will be staying with this hobby, it would probably be better to play it safe and save your money by just going with something such as an inexpensive 6 channel transmitter.
You might even be better of not building your own drone but getting a RTF (ready-to-fly) drone instead. We’ve reviewed several, in all different price ranges, for you in our quadcopter review section.
It’s also good to know that some RC transmitters support firmware flashing and programming, to enhance functionality even further. Something that will prevent them from being outdated quickly, and something (programming) that you might actually need if you want to use your quadcopter for non standard purposes.
So before spending good money on an RC transmitter you should do your research to see what type of transmitters will be capable of these enhancements.
This should get you on your way to find the right quadcopter transmitter. Feel free to share this with your friends as well and subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date with the latest industry news and review.