What Is A Flight Controller?

So what is a flight controller you ask? You’ve come to the right place.

Think of the flight controller as the brains of the drone. All of the drone’s hardware will plug into the flight controller, including the motors/escs, gps, compass, lidar, rc receiver, telemetry etc. 

With all the drone’s hardware plugged into this central hub, it makes for the ideal interface to fuse all the sensory input and output a stable and steady flight. 

Take for example the image below. This pixhawk microcontroller fuses all of the ancillary drone inputs into one simple board. The same concept applies for any type of flight controller.

Pixhawk Wire Diagram

Basically, you cannot have a drone without a flight controller. Theses FCs also come in many different shapes and sizes. 

You should also be aware of the types of firmware that can run on the flight controller. What is the firmware you ask, and how does it differentiate from the flight control board? 

The firmware is the code used to run the flight controller. The flight controller is physical, and the firmware is digital. Some firmware examples are ArduPilot, PX4, BetaFlight etc. Just simply flash the board with the firmware you want to use.

Depending on your drone goals, you may want to use different flight control software. So make sure your flight controller choice can support your desired firmware. 

Functions Most Flight Controllers Are Capable Of

With a FC, you can achieve quite a bit. For example: 

  • Automatically leveling the drone
  • Loitering where the drone locks in place
  • Autonomous missions
  • Return to home functionality
  • and a ton more

There are limitations to flight controllers however. 

For example, while a drone with just a flight controller can perform autonomous missions, the missions are static and must be pre-determined. 

A big shortcoming of flight controller only drones is for drone engineers attempting to develop high level apps. It simply isn’t possible. 

FC Shortcoming: Drone Apps

Say you wanted to create a gesture controlled drone. Or perhaps you wanted to put 4G on your drone for limitless control. Maybe you wanted to program your drone with python. 

With a flight controller alone, this isn’t possible. 

Drone Delivery With Companion Computer

So how are drone engineers creating these high level drone applications? 

It is with a device called a companion computer. If you want to learn more about companion computers, what they are and what they unlock, then read more here

For some of you, building high level drone apps isn’t a desire. And for you, a flight controller alone will be more than enough. 

This is why it is crucial to devise your drone goals before building a drone. 

Final Thoughts

Flight controllers are a requirement for any drone build. Without them, you simply couldn’t fly. Picking the right FC for your specific use case is also very important, as different board/firmware combos will unlock different features.

If you want to learn more about all the details that go into building your own drone from scratch, check out our guide on how to build your own DIY drone.

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