What's it Going to Cost?
Like most pursuits, getting started in R/C submarines entails the investment of funds. A wise modeler assesses the damage to his pocketbook before embarking on a project. There are essentially three tiers of hobby participation with increasing levels of financial commitment: RTR subs, model sub kits, and scratch build projects.
Note: all costs provided are estimates based on 2021 prices. Upgrades and deals can swing prices higher or lower. Diligently compare products and pricing prior to purchase. The SubCommittee Vendor List is the perfect place to begin your research.
RTR (ready to run)
To get in the water quickly, many modelers begin with an RTR boat. These subs come almost fully assembled and include electronics and a radio.
A popular example of this type of kit used to be the Thunder Tiger Neptune. It contained everything needed for the submarine model to operate. The modeler only supplied the tools necessary for hooking up the control linkages and other minor assembly work (Note: boats purchased outside North America may require full assembly). Past retail cost for this large R/C sub was $650-750. Unfortunately, this model has been discontinued and has been replaced with the more expensive Thundertiger Seawolf, which retails for closer to $3000USD.
Smaller RTR boats can be had to further reduce costs. These range in size from a foot in length down to several inches and are normally suitable for swimming pool use only. Originally introduced by the retail giant Wal-Mart, these diminutive boats garnered the nickname Wally Subs. Total package price is $100-200.
Pre-owned submarines are another means to get in the water fast. Look for deals on completed boats on eBay and the SubSwap Forum.
Finally, there are a very small number of builders who take on commissioned work for customers. This would involve taking your hull and components and fully assembling, testing and trimming the boat for you. A (very rough) rule of thumb would be to take your component costs (hull, dive system, radio, electronics, etc) and double that in order to get a rough RTR cost. Some builders charge more or less, and some boats are much more labor-intensive than others, so this cost varies greatly.
A sub kit is a project that normally does not include a WTC or electronics. It usually renders a fiberglass hulled submarine in a standard scale, contains all the major parts to complete the project, and was designed with radio controlled operations in mind. Kits of this type run from $350-$500 on average. Larger scale kits can send the cost much higher.
To get the boat diving, a watertight cylinder (WTC) is necessary. While component parts can be purchased for the do-it-yourselfer, several vendors make turnkey units based around the standard ballast system types (see ballast systems tutorial). In some instances these WTCs can cost as much as, or more than, the submarine kit. Typical turnkey WTCs cost from $500 - $800 depending on the vendor.
Most WTCs do not include the basic mission critical electronics such as receiver, failsafe, electronic speed control (ESC), and pitch controller. These must be purchased separately, along with a battery to power the boat. A basic four-channel electronics setup for a static diving boat runs on average:
Pitch Control: $50-$85
Battery: $25 (LiPo)
Battery charger: $45+
Total electronics package: $220-$325
A radio transmitter puts the “R” in R/C. With name brand vendors abandoning the 75MHz surface frequency, supply has dwindled. As a result, many modelers have turned to the used market where prices vary. However, there are still a few submarine hobby vendors carrying new 75 MHz units. Average price for a 4-channel radio is $165.
Finally, there are costs incurred during the construction and operation of the boat. These include adhesives, primer, finish paint, dry transfers, connectors, soldering supplies, wire, etc. and pressurized gas for gas ballast systems. Don't forget tax and shipping for purchases. A factor of 10% of the total is a good baseline to use for these expenses.
When all is said and done, a typical submarine kit, such as a 1/96 scale SSN with 4 channel radio and static ballast system, will require an investment of approximately $1200 - $1850.
For those who have a passion for unusual subjects or scales, scratch building is an alternative path. However, it is not for the financially timid. Scratch building usually entails specialized, labor intensive skills that can require expensive tools and raw materials. While some novice modelers are tempted by the initially low monetary investment, the total sum can accumulate greatly over time and is almost always more expensive in the long run. Furthermore, mistakes due to inexperience are costly as the learning curve can result in work being rendered unusable.
The SubCommittee offers an excellent e-book introduction to the scratch building process by master builder Steve Neill (download it for free here). Even with this resource, it is wise to consult with an experienced scratch builder before embarking on your own one-off project.
For those who persevere to the end and produce a unique new submarine model, development costs can be recouped by selling copies of your boat as kits. Many submarine vendors started out this way. Again, it is very prudent to pick the brain of those who have gone before you to have a clear picture of what will be required to succeed in the kit production business.