You can prolong the life of electronics in a quadcopter 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 almost like it’s not there.
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, acrylic coating would simply melt and burn away.
Buying Silicone Conformal Coating
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!
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.
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
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
- 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.
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.
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 you can get the top stuck if you close it with some of the stuff on 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
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