Want to create your own delivery drone? It’s surprisingly not that difficult to set up a DIY delivery drone system so you can bring small items to your neighbors — and you don’t even need a homemade drone to do it. All you need to build your own delivery drone is an off-the-shelf drone such as a DJI Phantom, a payload contraption, and a bit of technical prowess, and soon, you’ll be delivering fun treats to your family and friends.
The straightforward approach: a ‘release and drop’ device for your existing DJI drones like Drone Sky Hook
If you already have a DJI drone, don’t want to spend a ton of money, and have limited technical skill to modify your drone, it makes the most sense to purchase a third-party ‘release and drop’ device.
Contraptions like the Drone Sky Hook lock onto your DJI drones — requiring minimal installation skills on your end — and allow you to trigger the release of the payload through the drone’s controller.
Drone Sky Hook makes products compatible with the DJI Mavic 2, Mavic PRO, Mavic Air, Phantom 4 or Phantom 3 drones.
It’s a 3D-printed device, and it’s fairly fragile, but it can work especially for transporting lighter items across short distances that are easy and safe to fly through.
Flight time: The flight time will be correlated with the standard flight time of your drone (typically a maximum of around 30 minutes). However, depending on how heavy your payload is, your drone’s flight time will decrease — sometimes dramatically so.
Technical skills required: Minimal. The devices quickly attach to your drone, with no tools and no modification of any kind needed. That even means there’s no need to disable the drone’s sensors. However, you should be comfortable taking off, landing and flying without needing to rely on the sensors, as your payload may get in their way.
Payload capacity: It varies by drone, but think light — like balloons or just a few airy donuts. Even most books will be too heavy.
The cheapest option for a DIY delivery drone if you have technical expertise
If you’re really on a budget, you can go all-in on the DIY aspect of DIY delivery drone by creating your own simple drone delivery system using basic supplies you already have, such as a wire coat hanger, paper clips, zip ties and a box. The crew over at Instructables put together an awesome guide on how to build that contraption. As far as the drone itself — you can by that; a DJI Phantom will do.
Again, you should already be confident piloting your drone, as the Instructables author pointed out their own experience crashing. And battery life is contingent on the drone itself, as well as the payload you add. Don’t rely on the DJI software to accurately predict how much battery life you have left, as the payload will significantly alter it to a point that the software cannot predict.
The Instructables rig uses a DJI Phantom 2, which is no longer in production (though you may be able to find a used or refurbished model). If you go the DIY delivery drone route, I recommend using the DJI Phantom 3, as its one of the lower-cost DJI Phantoms (a DJI Phantom 4 is probably overkill, and quite expensive in case something goes wrong). The Phantom 3 battery life is about 25 minutes.
The aspirational option (if budget is not a constraint)
If you have a few (or more than a few) thousands of dollars, you can get a significantly more advanced payload system that’s safer, easy to use and can carry heavier payloads than a couple donuts.
A drone delivery company called A2Z Drone Delivery sells a product called the RDS1 (RDS is short for Rapid Delivery System). It’s designed to be used with a DJI Matrice 600 Pro drone. If you’ve already got a DJI Matrice 600, you can either purchase it as a standalone device to mount yourself for $4,000. Or, it can be sold pre-mounted on the drone for $12,000 (that price gets you the RDS1 and the DJI Matrice 600 Pro).
The DJI Matrice 600 Pro sells on its own for $6,599, so you’ll pay about $1,500 extra for the service of A2Z mounting it for you.
So what is it? It’s a tethered freefall delivery mechanism that can drop payloads from as high as 150 feet in the air. That’s much higher than many other payload systems — which is a good thing. That keeps the drone away from people (no risk of getting close to motors trying to retrieve a payload), and is quieter from the ground.
Range: 3.5 km (2.17 miles)
Maximum payload: 2 kg (4.4 lbs)
While it costs much more than the above two options, you get a lot more too. The RDS1’s proprietary delivery mechanism incorporates a LiDAR sensing system streaming continuous data to the onboard firmware which controls the payload’s rapid descent, and allows for a safer, smarter drone delivery experience.
Here are just a few of the features you get for the $4,000 price tag (or $10,000+ including the drone):
- Payload status detection: Even if the drone flies beyond your line of sight, the software will still continuously monitor your payload throughout flight and delivery.
- Pre-flight weight check: The software is smart enough to ensure your payload isn’t too heavy. Plus, it can control payload deceleration based on its size.
- Rapid descent calculation: The drone can automatically determine when to slow the payload freefall at the proper distance from the ground.
- Manual delivery control: The payload won’t just drop. Instead, intelligent onboard systems provide safeguards that allow you to manually control tethered payload delivery and retrieval.
- Passive payload lock: This safety feature guards against payload loss or tether slippage in case of unforeseen power fluctuations, and eliminates the need for additional payload housing.
- Kevlar tether– The whole contraption includes a tether rated for 100 lbs. tensile strength (of course, that’s far more weight than the airframe is designed to carry) for additional safety.
You’ll also get an app that incorporates intuitive overlays on the DJI flight control interface, allowing you to monitor payload status while manually controlling delivery and retrieval.
What carrying a payload means for your DJI warranty
The short answer: neither DJI’s limited warranty, nor its expanded warranty coverage called DJI Care Refresh, will cover your drone if you are using it to carry a payload.
Point number three on DJI’s list of scenarios not covered through DJI Care Refresh states that it will not cover “damage caused by using your DJI product together with a non-DJI product or third-party accessory/software that is not authorized by DJI.”
In short, fly your drone with a payload at your own risk. And when you’re carrying a payload, the risk is even higher.
What are the FAA rules around using a drone for delivery?
Using a drone for deliveries is generally legal in the eyes of the Federal Aviation Administration. According to the FAA:
Your drone can carry an external load if it is securely attached and does not adversely affect the flight characteristics or controllability of the aircraft. You also may transport property for compensation or hire within state boundaries provided the drone (including its attached systems), payload, and cargo, weighs less than 55 pounds total and you obey the other flight rules. (Some exceptions apply to Hawaii and the District of Columbia.)
You also should not fly your delivery drone over people — both for legal reasons and for common sense, safety reasons. This guide can be useful for sending goods between backyards of neighbors where the drone doesn’t actually fly over anyone. But flying a drone always comes with some inherent risk — and that risk is elevated when you attach a payload, especially through a third-party manufacturer via a drone that wasn’t necessarily designed to carry payloads.
You’ll also need to make sure your drone is registered, which can be done through faadronezone.faa.gov for a $5 fee. When you register your drone, you will receive a registration number that you must put on the drone.
Have you tried to create a DIY delivery drone rig before? What tips do you have? Leave a comment below!