Why Are They So Darned Expensive?
Invariably, this is the second question that I get, always coming right after, "How much does it cost?"
Realistically, this is not an unreasonable question, but it definitely is one that should percolate in the inside of one's head prior to issuing forth, unconsidered in the slightest. I must admit that I take great pleasure in spelling out what I consider to be elementary common sense answers to that question, ones that should, in a perfect world, come unbidden if one puts enough time and thought into it.
We, however, do not live in a perfect world, or if we do, it is shamefully disappointing to me, an imperfect being. With that being the case, I thought it would be beneficial to spell out, in no uncertain terms, just why these wondrous creations of engineering and art cost so much more than the $29.99 pool toys that can be found on eBay and the shelves of your local Walmart.
This is a tiny hobby: Without trying to educate you on the basics of economy of scale, let's just start by saying that, in most cases, the more you make of something, the cheaper you can manufacture it. The issue is that many people's expectations have been set by the world of R/C boats and R/C cars, the manufacturers of which happily churn out hundreds of thousands of them each year and which we, as consumers, happily snatch up at rock-bottom prices. The R/C submarine community is tiny, owing to the exceptionally high level of mechanical aptitude that a successful sub-driver must possess in order to keep their boats operational. Unlike an R/C car, an R/C submarine must be a creation of exceptional balance and delicate tweaking. One cannot simply drop in a motor, some batteries and a few servos and begin tearing through the undersea world. This makes it a challenging hobby for the new generation of hobbyists, whose attention span typically lasts as long as the most recent episode of Breaking Bad on Netflix, (though even that is likely interjected with at least a handful of updates on Instagram and (if you're older) perhaps Facebook, so it doesn't really count). The world of R/C submarines does not appeal to everyone. Without hundreds of thousands of people buying the bespoke products needed to get an R/C submarine going, manufacturing costs remain high, typically sourced from small shops or, just as likely, the garage of someone's home.
There is a lot that goes into them: As I mentioned earlier, people typically compare R/C subs to the world of R/C cars or perhaps R/C airplanes. When you really take a look at those products, however, you'll see that the components list that makes them up is actually quite tiny. Planes are basically styrofoam bodies (mass-produced, of course), a motor, a battery, some servos and a speed controller. Likewise the R/C car. There are many components that go into an R/C submarine, and very few of them are cheap. Let's take a quick look at the basics:
Hull: The actual body of your submarine can vary widely in terms of cost, ranging from $100 for a cheaper plastic model conversion to many thousands of dollars for a large scale, fiberglass, high detail reproduction.
Watertight cylinder: Exceptionally important component that typically runs anywhere from $500 to $1500, depending on size and features.
Pitch Controller: While not, technically, required, it is a very good idea for scale-like performance. These units use a sensitive gyroscope to track the model's orientation and correct unwanted pitch of the model during operation. Cost? About $80
Radio System: The new GHz frequency systems are great for surface operation, but they suck at controlling models underwater. With no manufacturer currently making the older 75MHz radios anymore, you'll need to pay good prices for good used radios. Expect to pay between $100 and $300 for a decent unit
Batteries: These, thankfully, can cross over from the other R/C communities. Expect to pay between $50 and $150 for a set of LiPo batteries with a charger
Optional Electronics: While not imperative for operation, there are many units out there that make the operation of a submarine more enjoyable. These can include failsafe units (perhaps considered by many to be a requirement), remote switches, lighting controllers, depth keepers and bow plane units. These could easily add another $150 to the cost
Miscellaneous linkages, hardware, paint and adhesives. While not a big dollar group, you still need to allocate for these. Let's say $50.
Labor: If you can't do it yourself, you need to pay someone else to do it for you. This probably confounds the most people when I quote models for them. They expect a few hours of gluing, some spray paint and voila!... an R/C submarine appears! (They'd do it themselves, of course, but they're just too busy right now). I'd say that my average build takes between 100 and 200 hours, depending on the subject. I can do it faster, of course, especially for simple, straightforward builds of modern submarines (basically just tubes with a cap on them!), but they can go way further the other way, too, especially when people start listing out their wish list of features like torpedoes, lights, bow thrusters, sound, smoke, levitation, warp speed, working machine guns and missiles (all, of course, to be fitted into the smallest and cheapest model hull that they could find). So, bearing in mind that there is considerable time involved, we now get to the rate. I consider myself to be an above-average craftsman. With that being said, I hope to make more than minimum wage. If we say that my average estimate for buildup for an R/C sub ranges from $1000 to $2000, that would put my hourly fee at somewhere around $10/hr. Nice! I make more than the guy who sweeps floors at McDonald's! So... let's average it out at $1500 for labor.
Total estimated cost: Somewhere between $1800 and a bajillion dollars. Do it yourself? Start your budgeting at $800 and go up, up, up from there.
What about Scratch-building?
Now, many of you are likely saying, "Well, that's ridiculous! I can build a 10ft long model for seventy five cents using a hammer, some glue, a sheet of plywood and a bit of time!"
Well, yes... of course you can.
I did it, too. Well, not a 10ft long model, but a 6ft long model of a damned challenging subject, the Nautilus from the 1954 Disney movie, "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea". Getting the hull built, should I have known enough to make it first from water-friendly material and not wood like I stupidly did, would probably have cost me no more than a dinner out for the family at McDonald's.
All it took was 3 years of my life.
Can you save money by building everything yourself? Of course you can. Should you do it? Only if you're a masochist. You're shaking your head angrily right now, I know! Preposterous! Well let's take a look at some numbers again, shall we?
Costs for Scratchbuilding:
Hull construction materials: $50 (assuming water friendly materials)
Cylinder construction materials: $50
Cylinder electronics (motors, ESC, pumps, servos, seals, etc): $150
Radio system: $200
Miscellaneous hardware: $50
Paint and adhesives: $40
Total materials cost: $620
So what you've really accomplished is re-creating something that is already on the market, eaten up years of your life, likely ended up with an inferior end-result, and saved enough money to take the family to McDonald's for dinner (a few times, granted).
Now, I agree that scratch-building creates a sense of accomplishment unmatched by nearly anything, and it is possible that the subject you really want is not currently available on the market. In this case, yes, you're stuck with building it yourself. What I am saying is that undertaking such a challenge purely from the standpoint of saving money is, to put it bluntly, stupid.
R/C submarines are expensive. There are no two ways 'round it. Right now, with the market the size it is, you'll have to pay to play. Whining about the price won't help anything, unfortunately.
What I can say is that once you're in it, you'll find a new world of adventure and challenge unlike anything that any other hobby can offer. It is not for everyone. Hell, it's not even for most people. For those with the right disposition and skills, however, it is a world unlike any other, and we like it that way!
the Nautilus Drydocks