Waterproofing Drone Electronics – Conformal Coating Tutorial

by Oscar
Published: Last Updated on

You can prolong the life of electronics in an FPV drone with waterproofing, the most common method is Conformal coating. It helps prevent components from moisture and chemical damage when flying in extreme conditions.

Conformal coating is basically a thin film which conforms to the contours of a PCB and protects the components and solder joints on it.

You don’t actually have to fly in the rain or snow to Conformal coat your drone electronics. Conformal coating is a good practice to protect the quad from humidity and wet grass/leaves that can cause electrical short on exposed solder joints. It will even increase the chance of survival if you crash your quadcopter in the water.

The Types of Waterproofing

There are two popular solutions to waterproofing drone electronics: silicone and acrylic.

The main advantage with Acrylic is that it’s easily removable. You can burn through the coating simply with your solder iron.

However, for quadcopters or RC models in general, silicone is better as it can withstand higher temperature than acrylic. Many components in a quadcopter can get very hot, for example, the video transmitters, might melt through acrylic coating.

Buying Silicone Conformal Coating

MG silicone conformal coating and uv light

I use MG Chemical Silicone Modified Conformal Coating, you can get it from:

These exist in two versions: the older version, and the newer “modified version”. They are basically the same stuff, but the “modified version” fluoresce under UV light (ultra-violet, aka black light). It makes it very handy to verify the full coverage of the coating, strongly recommended!

check silicone conformal coating with uv light

The board on the left is NOT Conformal coated, on the right is coated – you can tell by the glow under UV light

Its available on Amazon around US$20 for a 55ml bottle, which should last years for an ordinary pilot. It has a nail polish type brush attached to the cap for easy application.

Avoid the spray version because it will get everywhere you don’t want it to be. For example, your USB connector and bootloader button, and they might stop working. And it’s difficult to apply it evenly like you can with a brush.

Don’t forget to grab a cheap UV light torch too, these are cheap:

Finally, I also recommend getting some isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol). It’s for cleaning your electronics before coating, and it’s useful for removing the coat as well.

Preparation

It’s best to apply Conformal coating on an existing quad, because getting the stuff on solder pads will make soldering much harder. If you want to do this on a new quad, you should first finish building the quad and fly it to make sure all components are working properly. You don’t want to mess with soldering again after applying.

If you are doing this on an existing quad, then you will want to remove all the tapes and heatshrinks that are covering any PCB. Make sure to clean the electronics to remove any dirt before applying Conformal coating. I use an old toothbrush and isopropyl alcohol for that.

Applying Silicone Conformal Coating on PCB

Warning: Do not sniff the stuff as it is carcinogen! It’s important to have good ventilation when applying it.

Brush it on like nail polish. If you are unfamiliar with the procedure, ask your sister :-p

applying silicone conformal coating with brush

It takes about half an hour to dry, though I personally would leave it to dry overnight just in case. Normally, one layer is enough, but if you don’t think you have applied enough or missed a few spots, feel free to repeat for another coat for better result.

Use a blacklight (UV torch) to see if you missed anywhere.

What areas to avoid:

  • flight controller: boot button, USB Port, Barometer
  • FPV camera: image sensor
  • VTX: channel button
  • RX: bind button

How to Remove Silicone Coating?

Say if I covered the solder pads by mistake and I want to remove it, the best way is to use Isopropyl alcohol. It can also be burnt away with soldering iron, but I don’t recommend it. Not only It takes a while, you can also overheat the copper pad and damage it.

Some FC and ESC come with Conformal coating, such as this Kakute F7 AIO. But as you can see, it clearly was the spray stuff, the coat is uneven, and missed quite a few spots.

Just take a cotton bud, dip it in alcohol, and rub it on the PCB where you want the coating to be removed.

It should only take a few rubs to remove a thin layer of coating.

If you want to remove every bit of coating on a PCB, you will have to dip the whole board in alcohol and clean with a toothbrush. The coating will dissolve, and finally let it dry completely.

Pro Tips

Best to connect all the plugs before applying coating. This will ensure it doesn’t ruin the contact inside the header/plug.

As mentioned, Silicone coating can be burnt away by soldering iron. Therefore whenever you re-soldered something, you should apply Conformal coating again to the area.

You can try filling the small gaps, e.g. between capacitors and resistors, by blowing the coating with compressed air (not too close or you can make a mess).

Cap Getting Stuck

It’s important to clean the rim of the bottle with paper towel before putting the cap back on after use. Silicone coating works just like glue and the top can get stuck if you close it with some of the stuff left on the rim.

Here are some ideas what to do when you can’t get the top off:

  • Slightly heat up the cap with a hair-dryer or heat gun (don’t melt the plastic though!)
  • Smack the edge of the top with a butter knife or against the bench, all around the edge to break the hardened coating

Other Waterproofing Alternatives

DryDrone

This is a rebranded product.

Someone found an existing product and though it’s great for drone uses. So he bought a large amount of it and sell in small quantity, which would otherwise be economically impractical to use.

Similar to Silicone Modified coating, you can also use UV light to see where the DryDrone has been applied on. You should put the cap on tightly, because this stuff evaporates very quickly!

Rumour has it that it is rebranded 3M novec 1700, or Novec 2700 series which has the UV detectable dye in it. I am not sure. I haven’t tried this either to verify its effectiveness.

You can get them on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2sAM6cl

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14 comments

Phil 24th May 2021 - 2:00 am

Hey Oscar, thanks for the information. I will be running the vista nebula pro and those things (according to online and forum reviews) generate lots of heat. Have you seen any issues with heat buildup after applying this product?

Thanks,
Phil

Reply
Oscar 24th May 2021 - 12:33 pm

just make sure the large chips are not covered with, maybe it’s okay, the heat is mainly originated from those chips. I have not tried it on the Vista though so I can’t comment if it’s going to work 100%.

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Ernesto Vasquez 8th January 2021 - 2:08 am

Hello. I was wondering if anyone’s conformal coated quad motors. Is it ok to do so?

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Will 7th January 2021 - 4:17 pm

Is it possible to waterproof Caddx Vista unit?

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Jamie 6th August 2019 - 6:44 am

is it ok to just dip a an esc in the bottle rather than applying with a brush. Id rather not try to pull of the heatsink.

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Kevin 23rd April 2019 - 6:48 am

My Kakute f7 has the SD card slot onboard – any tips for getting around that? I don’t ever intend to use an SD with it, so should I just brush the silicon on normally?

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Oscar 23rd April 2019 - 9:07 pm

if you don’t use it, then just brush over it :)

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Wali Gomes 3rd April 2019 - 5:00 pm

Great tut! Thanks!
Ive used Si conformal coating a few times with mixed results. One thing that does work for me is brushing on a coating of CorrosionX on all connections (plugs). Its messy, but it still allows the connection. Also I had some problem with my gps module after I coated it (would not lock on). I cleared the coating from the metal spot in the middle of the top (antenna?) and it got a lock after that. Anecdotal, but it worked for me.
I still have a couple of questions that maybe you could help me with:
1) Do esc require additional protection? That seems to be a particularly water sensitive component and the only thing that smoked after water exposure.
2) What can you do for barometers? Anything?
3) Any tips for coating the TX?

Thanks!!
Wali

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Perot 28th February 2019 - 6:05 am

Can you go over barometers and other parts not to coat or how to uncover if you have coated them?

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Oscar 11th March 2019 - 3:51 pm

soak it with alcohol, the coating should dissolve. Then leave it to dry completely.

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alain stahl 24th February 2019 - 4:43 pm

seems like this stuff just killed my board … not sure how , I used this stuff on many board before , maybe I put on too much …
what can I dip the board in to remove it ? just alcohol ?

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paul dowling 21st February 2019 - 9:59 pm

Nice job, different conformals are a good cheap solution for moisture control, but unfortunately, application methods often cause more issues than they resolve. Your explanation is most helpful and anyone wanting to try conformal coating should read it all t.o avoid many of the pitfalls that can occur.

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CaptainPilou 21st February 2019 - 6:08 am

Anyone using Tropicoat (electronicaembajadores.com/en/Productos/Detalle/HR11060/tool-instrument/aerosol-spray/jelt-7361-tropicoat-400-ml-tropicalised-varnish)? I’m using it but don’t know if it’s doing a good job?

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Martin 30th January 2019 - 10:44 am

Hi Oscar,

It’s important to say, waterproofing component isn’t cover by the warranty.
It’s happened to me, twice, with two different ESC and each reseller won’t take my product. (Considered like a modification)

So i prefer protect them from humidity and hope they can survive in the water with no warranty than a burned component without warranty anyway :p

A very big thanks for all your work ! you help so much the FPV community ;)

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