Choose Flight Controller for Quadcopter

The number of flight controllers on the market can be overwhelming for beginners. This guide aims to explain some of the considerations in choosing the best flight controller for your quadcopter. I will also introduce you to some iconic and popular FC boards.

Article first created in Dec 2014, last updated in Nov 2016.

A flight controller (a.k.a FC) is the brain of your aircraft. It is basically a circuit board that takes sensors data and user commands, and controls the motors in order to keep the quadcopter in the air.

FC has basic sensors including Gyro (Gyroscopes) and Acc (Accelerometer), some more advanced ones come with Barometer (barometric pressure sensors), magnetometer (compass). Flight controller is also a hub for many other peripherals, such as GPS, LED, Sonar sensor etc.

FC Firmware

Apart from the difference in hardware, they might also use different firmware that are specialized in different applications.

Modern FC firmware normally can be configured via software on a computer or smartphone. “Tuning” is the term we use in the multirotor hobby when we configure our quads. Because when we change PID, rates and certain settings, it changes the way the multirotor flies, so it’s kind of like tuning a car. The GUI and the parameters might be different so there is certain level of learning curve getting into each of them.

Here are some of the major software choices for quadcopters broken down by applications.

Mini Quad and Racing Drones

  • Baseflight (outdated)
  • Cleanflight (Based on Baseflight)
  • Betaflight (fork of Cleanflight, provides cutting-edge technology and excellent performance for acro flying)
  • Raceflight (fork of Cleanflight, designed for F4 boards, also excellent for acro flying)
  • dRonin (fork of Taulabs)
  • KISS (Based on Multiwii, closed sourced and developed by Flyduino)

GPS and Autopilot Systems

Main features: Way-point, loiter, return to home, etc.

  • Ardupilot
  • Naza
  • iNav (fork of Cleanflight)

Other Open Source Projects

  • Multiwii
  • LibrePilot (previously known as OpenPilot)
  • Taulabs (fork of OpenPilot)

There are also flight controllers that don’t use computer software. They might have a built-in LCD that allows you to change FC settings on the go. Or It might not even allow you to change settings at all.

In 2015, most users in the mini quad community were using Cleanflight, there are approximately 186K users to date (according Google Chrome App Store). However more and more people are switching over to Betaflight (85K) and Raceflight (12K) for better performance and features.

For GPS autonomous flying, you should probably look at either Ardupilot or Naza depends on the kind of boards you use.

Firmware Choice Affect FC Buying Decision

Normally a FC can support multiple firmware, so once you have chosen a FC firmware then you can look at what FC are compatible.

So, How To Choose a Flight Controller?

What’s The Application?

Before we start, we should know what sort of flying you want to do:

  • Racing and Free Style flying
  • Aerial Photography and filming
  • Autonomous missions

Then you can hopefully decide on what software you want to run, and look into the range of flight controllers that support that software.

What Features Are You Looking For?

Since I mostly spend my time flying mini quads (as well as most of the readers of this blog), I will focus on drone racing/freestyle in the rest of the article.

Factors you need to consider when picking a flight controller for a mini quads are:

  • Processor – You have F1, F3, F4 to choose from currently
  • Sensor: Gyro Model and Bus – Some Gyro are more vulnerable to noise (both electrical and mechanical noise), the less desirable MPU being MPU6500 and MPU9250. The type of Gyro BUS can have an effect on sampling rate and how fast you can run your looptime. The preferred BUS is SPI, which allows you to run Gyro refresh rate at 8KHz+, while I2C limits you at 4KHz.
  • Flash Memory for Blackbox – Some have built-in dataflash memory, some have SD card loggers. If you don’t use blackbox then this is not relevant
  • Connector Types – I personally would avoid plastic JST connectors as they are less durable although they allow you to connect/disconnect easily. I like solder pads, but sometimes with low quality boards, they tend to peel off quite easily when you overheat them just slightly. I prefer through holes which gives you the option of direct soldering or using header pins
  • Integrated Voltage Regulator – with this hardware you can power the board directly from your LiPo battery. Most of the time it also measures your battery level (eliminates VBAT wiring)
  • Integrated PDB – This is one step further from the above, where the whole power distribution board is integrated in the FC. Your ESC can be connected directly to the FC and no additional PDB or wire harness is required
  • Other extra features you might like:
    • Bootloader button
    • Support for IR Transponder (for recording lap time in races)
    • Integrated OSD
    • Integrated VTX
    • Baro/Mag (these are less important in racers)

Comparison Chart

Here are some popular Flight controllers. However this is quite old (I made it back in 2015). For a more up to date list for mini quad targeted FC, check out my mini quad parts list.

FC Name Price RX Modes Baro/Compass GPS MicroController
APM 2.6 $50 PWM, PPM External Yes 8-bit, 16MHz
BrainFPV $130 PWM, PPM, S.Bus, DSM, HoTT Internal/External Yes 32-bit, 168MHz
CC3D $14 PWM, PPM, S.Bus, DSM No Limited 32-bit, 72MHz
Crius AIO $48 PWM, PPM Internal/External Yes 8-bit, 16MHz
Flip32 $24 PWM, PPM, S.Bus No Limited 32-bit, 72MHz
KK2.1.5 $22 PWM, PPM No No 8-bit, 16MHz
Multiwii SE 2.5 $15 PWM, PPM Internal Yes 8-bit, 16MHz
Naza M Lite $170 PWM, PPM, S.Bus External Yes unknown
Naza M V2 $300 PWM, PPM, S.Bus External Yes unknown
Naze32 Acro $25 PWM, PPM, S.Bus No Limited 32-bit, 72MHz
Naze32 Full $53 PWM, PPM, S.Bus Yes Yes 32-bit, 72MHz
Quanton $66 PWM, PPM, S.Bus, DSM, HoTT Internal/External Yes 32-bit, 168MHz
Revo $130 PWM, PPM, S.Bus, DSM Internal/External Yes 32-bit, 168MHz
Sparky $60 PPM, S.Bus, DSM Internal Yes 32-bit, 72MHz
Sparky 2 $35 PPM, SBUS, DSM 32-bit,
SPRacing F3 $65 PPM, SBUS, DSM 32-bit,
Tornado F3 $29 PPM, SBUS, DSM 32-bit,
DoDo F3 $50 PPM, SBUS, DSM 32-bit,

My First Flight Controller – KK2

The KK2 was my very first flight controller. This used to be one of the most popular boards out there, and it was relatively cheap.

However, being an 8-bit FC, it doesn’t fly as good as the 32-bit counterparts. The main advantage of the KK2 is having the on-board LCD screen and buttons. You can setup and tune your quadcopter right on the flight controller without the need of a computer. This is very user friendly and useful for beginners.

But this FC is getting outdated now and I would recommend to skip it and get a modern 32-bit FC instead.

kk2

More information on the KK2.

CC3D

The Pioneer of 32-bit flight controller, one of the earliest if not the first. It supports LibrePilot (used to be OpenPilot), Cleanflight/Betaflight. It’s still widely used, due to the good choice of hardware (SPI Gyro Bus), users can still squeeze some pretty decent performance out of it although being F1.

cc3d

Naze32

The Naze32 is a tried and tested flight controller, used to be one of the most popular board for mini quad. I talked about the Naze32 before in more detail.

The companion software, BaseFlight GUI is pretty easy to use too. You can also choose to flash CleanFlight and Betaflight on it. Here is how you can flash cleanflight.

It’s been retired by a new version Rev6 which I had pretty bad experience with because of the MPU6500, making it oscillate a lot and very hard to tune.

Anyway I cannot recommend this FC anymore, as F1 has reached its limit in terms of performance in the newest firmware. I would recommend getting a F3/F4 FC.

naze32

MultiWii Boards

There are many different Multiwii boards, for example the MultiwiiPro.

Multiwii is an open source project, started many years ago. It began by utilizing the Nintendo Wii Nunchuck hardware (Gyro and accelerometer) as its sensor because they were widely available back then, that’s where the name came from. Because it was the only few open source multicopter projects at the time, the code was ported and further developed into many other projects and platforms.

MultiWiiProMultiwiiPro FC

One good example is the MultiWii Pro (MWP) board, which is based upon the Arduino and uses the ATmega2560 processor. This board has gyro, acc, barometer, and magnetometer. It also supports many other optional sensors, such as the GPS and sonar sensor. MultiWii is capable of flying RC plane and multicopter. The software interface might not look as good as the APM one, but it still does a good job and cost you less to start with.

Naza

The Naza was made famous by the DJI quadcopters such as the Phantom series.

Information about Naza.

naza

APM2.6

One of the very few FC that offers relatively reliable GPS features. It has also released the APM Mini at a cheaper price.

Information about APM2

apm2.5-board

Crius AIO Pro

A good alternative to the expensive APM. It’s also capable of running multiwii software on it.

Information about Crius AIO Pro

crius_aio

BrainFPV RE1

The Brain FPV has integrated OSD hardware which is handy. It’s designed specifically for drone racing.

BrainFPV RE1 F4 FC

For more information, check our my review of BrainFPV flight controller.

Seriously Pro Racing F3 (aka SPRacing)

The Seriously Pro F3 is designed by the creator of Cleanflight.

seriously-pro-racing-f3-flight-controller-spracing-fc-top

It has the same processor as the Sparky v1 (STM32F3). It is an awesome FC, and one could consider it the successor to the NAZE32 full boards.

F1 has pretty much reached the limit, simply too many features and not enough memory and process power to put them all in, not to mention too few UARTS… The list goes on. OpenPilot, for example, has stopped development for the CC3D (STM32F1 based).

Sparky 2

There’s also the Sparky 2 out now. This has the even newer STM32F4 processor, same as the OpenPilot Revo, which retails for $57 making it quite a bargain if you can get your hands on one.

sparky_v2_flight-controller-fc

Tornado F3

motolab-tornado-fc-flight-controller

RMRC Seriously DoDo F3

RMRC-DODO-FC-flight-controller-f3

OpenPilot Revo (Revolution)

cc3d-revo-revolution-f4-flight-controller-fc

Kombini F3

PDB integrated FC, for more info.

furiousfpv-kombini-fc-production-top

Radiance F3 FC

For more info

radiance-fc-flight-controller-furiousfpv-prototype-top

KISS FC

For more info

kiss fc flight controller close up top

BeeFlight

For more detail

beeflight-fc-newbeedrone-top

Finally

If you would like to discuss anything related to flight controller, feel free to join this forum.

40 thoughts on “Choose Flight Controller for Quadcopter

  1. kukumeka

    Which FC is more suitable to lift payload of 5lb even though they are not placed in balanced positions and lift platform 4 feet off ground

    Reply
  2. Debo

    Hi oscar,
    Great post as usual. so oscar, i would like to know whats the difference between apm and pixhawk? are they just like the naze32 and flip32(flip being a naze clone)?
    thanks in advance

    Reply
  3. Dr Colin Lloyd

    Hi Oscar,
    This explanation has been both instructive and confusing for me when trying to choose an FC. I am currently building an ImmersionRC Xugong V2 Pro folding quadcopter. I want this as a backpackable hobby (i.e. not professional) video/photo “follow-me” quadcopter when I am walking in hills/mountains etc.
    I seem to have two options – either a normal RC Tx control or (my preference) a Tablet control. I don’t need FPV, racing or acrobatic capability. Either way my FC board has to have GPS capability – either internal or external. But I’m not sure which is the best route. I’m capable of hardware/software setups within the Raspberry Pi/Arduino arena – but with all the other possibilities of things going wrong when assembling a quadcopter from scratch – I probably would like to start with a known quantity as far as the FC is concerned. At this stage I’d rather start with a budget board -see what happens and then go up the ladder as I become more knowledgeable as far as capability/ease of use etc is concerned.

    Reply
    1. Oscar Post author

      it sounds like you should be looking at the APM / Pixhawk route, however I am not familiar with that area yet, currently i fly mostly acro boards :)

      Reply
  4. Nivash

    Hi Oscar

    Please advise me
    I have a flip32 and need to connect to a X8R receiver. The receiver connects with Sbus as well
    Can I use a Sbus to cppm decoder to complete my setup. Or what can I do

    Thankx

    Reply
  5. suhaas

    Hi Oscar,
    I want to build my first quadcopter i hav got all my materials but struck wit the fc ..my only specification regarding my quadcopter is that it must be completely flexible for me to control it in any manner .like for ex: it must not just fly and land but also perform all acrobatics like flip ,inverted flight ..I hope u got me …. i was suggested a KK v5.5 FC ,,wil this work or should I use some other …mail me if any suggestions ..
    Kindly help

    Reply
    1. Oscar Post author

      HI Gust,

      yes it should work fine with Cleanflight firmware :)

      by the way, I recommend joining this forum, it’s very useful and there are lots of helpful people there. I am a daily user too :) http://intoFPV.com

      Reply
  6. ZukenJ

    Hi Oscar,

    I know this article is some how old, but I am building a quad 450 and I am thinking on the APM 2.6, AM 2.8 or the OpenPilot CC3D Revolution Revo 10DOF STM32F4.

    Wandering if you can recommend one, links to vendors:
    APM 2.8:amazon.com/Hobby-Ace-Apm2-8-Controller-Absorber-Multicopter/dp/B015CPDD4W/ref=sr_1_2?s=toys-and-games&ie=UTF8&qid=1452720299&sr=1-2&keywords=APM+2.8

    AMP 2.6: amazon.com/Andoer-Flight-Controller-Multicopter-Quadcopter/dp/B00Q496EOM/ref=sr_1_1?s=toys-and-games&ie=UTF8&qid=1452720493&sr=1-1&keywords=APM+2.6

    CC3D Revo: banggood.com/OpenPilot-CC3D-Revolution-Revo-10DOF-STM32F4-Flight-Controller-Staight-Pin-p-1000068.html

    I really appreciated your help.

    Reply
  7. macfly1202

    Hi Oscar,
    Perhaps you could has the Pixfalcon and Pixracer ? They are Stm32f4 series.
    Thanks for your great and outstanding blog.

    Reply
  8. Pablo

    Hi Oscar,

    I’m building a F550 hexacopter and I have the motors,ESC,propellers,frame and battery, but I don’t know how to choose a good and cheap flight controller.I’ve seen the APM 2.8 and Flip32. Which do you recommend?Or another model?.I’d like to include a GPS or telemetry in the future to have the option to return home.

    Thanks.

    Reply
      1. Pablo

        Hi Oscar,
        Will be possible with Apm 2.8 with gps M8N to have return home and fail safe with 6 channels transmitter and receiver.I read that is also possible the option of follow you, What is necessary for this?

        Thanks.

  9. Giorgio Di Lella

    Hi Oscar,

    I am presently building a DJI 550mm Hexacopter. I presently have a quad that I picked up used. It came with 1000Kv motors, 30 Amp ESC a KKK2.0 Flight Controller board.

    I would like a FPV Setup with all the options available from the start…GPS, Compass and the “Return To Home” feature, and so on. Most suggest the Naza system. I see others also but don`t know were to begin.

    All I want to do is fly over trees and record the video.

    Thx.

    Reply
  10. Oscar Jr.

    Hi Oscar, here is Oscar too!

    Thanks for sharing those valuable informations. I just wanna know about SLT protocol and those FC, is there anyone compatible with ? I have this Tactic TTX650 with TR625 Rx and I’m intending to use a MultiWiiPro or a Naze32 Full in a RoboCat 275. What do you think, will it work?

    Cheers!

    Reply
  11. Ray Tillman

    Hi Oscar,
    I think its wrong to bad mouth someone you have never dealt with on the word of people who might have alterior motives. I am of course talking about your timecop comments. I had a defective naze32 when he first started producing them and he sent me a replacement , no arguments, only asked if i would mind sending him the bad board back so he could see what went wrong. Recently i bought four afromini’s and he sent me a free acro naze32. You have to remember that his forum was never meant for people like me(hobbyist) but as a base for stm32 development types. I agree he doesnt suffer fools gladly but as long as you read the manual first and try to solve your problem yourself first, he is fine. He has always treated me with respect and courtesy and most people he is short with ask him stupid questions that normal people would google first. When he first developed the naze32 it was a clone/reworking of a Chinese 32 bit board called FreeFlight and he really didnt want to go into production full time as he was just a hobby flyer who saw the limitations of 8 bit technology and wanted to move on to a 32 bit FC’s but within the multiwii community. He developed Baseflight from scratch and the naze32 grew from the FreeFlight board. Its a hobby to him, he never wanted the naze32 to get so big and take up so much of his time . If you check back to his break with rcgroups (who treated him abysmally) he makes it clear he doesn’t need the money or the hassle involved , its just a hobby project that grew out of hand. In the beginning there was Open Pilot with 32 bit boards that cost £100 there was no choice then. Now because of the naze32 and its derivatives i can get a board for less than £15 And its better, and mainly because of timecop. So dont knock what you dont know !

    Reply
    1. Oscar Post author

      Hi Ray, thanks for your comment, and sorry if I hurt your feeling. I was totally just describing what I have observed, none of my words about Timecop are personal. You are right, he did some amazing work about Naze32. Please see Baseflgith VS Cleanflight for more information.

      Reply
  12. MrSatoV

    Hi Oscar, been a while since we chatted. XD
    Nice article. I know it’s old, so it’s probably expected to be a little out of date.
    There are also some very valid DIY boards for those who are not afraid of such things. FlyingF3, DiscoveryF3 and DiscoveryF4… several. Of course, the Sparky series are actually opensource, same as CC3D was, and you can even have the boards made on oshpark.com, buy all the bits and pieces, solder them on yourself and VOILA, a homemade Spark v1 or v2. XD Except, when I checked, it costs pretty much the same if you’re doing 1-3 boards anyway, so may as well just buy a ready made one.

    My advice to newcomers is to watch aliexpress.com for sales on the Sparky v1.1. They can be had for about $26 – $28 if you wait and watch. I’ve bought two this way. You could pay half for a CC3D clone, and that will get you flying, but it won’t do GPS return to home, or anything like that. Naze32/Flip32 10dof will, but there are features that already are not supported on them, and most are crappy clones anyway. True that what I got off aliexpress are clones, but I can vouch for the fact that the quality is good, and performance is noticeably better than any F1 board. Can’t beat that value.

    Reply
    1. Oscar Post author

      Great info, thanks so much :)
      I need to update this post, but just haven’t got the time yet :) soon, my friend, soon…

      Reply
  13. Pratik

    Hi Oscar,

    I want to build a quadcopter with the following specification : FPV, Sensor and Tracking( gps system).. which FC should i use to make the quad witht he above mentioned specs.
    Plz reply ,or email me… any help or suggesion would help me.

    NOTE : A quadcopter that has GPS + FPV + Tracking sytem! .. All in One bro ;)

    Reply
      1. Pratik

        What do u suggest according! …

        the FC should help in Tracking as well as sensing part.. FPV is an ad on.
        It should help me stabilize my quad..!!

        This will be my Final Year project,,,so plz suggest ur expert ideas :)

  14. Gustavo A Gonalez

    Hi Oscar,

    I am currently in a Senior Design group and our project revolves around a quadcopter. In our design report we need to describe and outline some possible decisions between Flight Controllers, and your post has helped immensly in that regard. I would like to ask if we could use your chart/list (with credit of course) in our report?

    Reply
  15. Rafak

    bro… awesome review, comparison charts just help SO MUCH, my mind was already kinda made up about the Naze32 Full, your post was just the missing OK TO GO! … lol …… im newbie to all this quadcopters thing and looking to build my first 250mm FPV and i have a very newbie question …. what should i look for,, vertical or horizontal pins on the FC? (considering im going for a 250mm quad frame) …. ty so much bro…your blog is AWESOME!!!

    Reply
  16. Epasko

    need a TX for all of these
    I hope this what I got will work
    please say yes I will donate!

    I canhttps://www.banggood.com/index.php?com=account&t=ordersDetail&ordersId=6447656 get them separate
    any recommend?
    Steerix x4 quad I Have
    My 250 build I want as per your recommend
    Syma X5c 2.4g Naze Acro
    Flip32 ?

    Reply
    1. Oscar Post author

      i can’t see your link, it’s your order and only you can see it.
      send me the product page or product name please.
      for Flight controller, get the Naze32 acro :)

      Reply
  17. APMFriend

    Please also note, that APM/ArduCopter has a much improved Acro Mode since 3.1 – when comparing it to Multiwii it feels nearly identical. You are right though – on earlier implementations before 3.1, Acro Mode on APM was not so good! :)

    Reply
  18. CrazyCoder

    The Brain FPV has integrated OSD hardware which is handy, butvery little market share for some reason.

    It was released last week. Of course it has little market share.

    Reply
  19. CrazyCoder

    “Sparky, Quanton and Brain FPV Flight controllers were all based on OpenPilot’s project.”

    This is not correct. Naze32 is based on MultiWii, being a 32-bit port of MultiWii. Sparky, Quanton and Brain FPV are using Tau Labs firmware which is a fork of OpenPilot.

    Reply

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