From windsurfer to drone manufacturer

| Print |  Email
Wednesday, May 22, 2013

BY MATT WERBACH | OB CORRESPONDENT

05.22.13 Blog CarbonThe story of a windsurfing board builder turned drone plane component manufacturer sounds unique, but the Columbia Gorge is home to a handful of UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) component manufacturers who have made the transition. Take Real Carbon, for example, a Hood River company that got its start in Southern California in 1988, then relocated to the gorge in 1991. “We were making windsurfing products, so it seemed sensible to move up here,” says Mike Graham, an avid windsurfer who hails from Scotland.

Booms and boards were Real Carbon's focus, and that led to a partnership with Chinook Sailing, a major player in the windsurfing industry making other complementary parts. “We decided to start doing what we were good at and partner with other people who do the things they are good at,” says Graham. It was a key decision that would prove profitable in the future.

Thanks to their Chinook partnership, by 2003, Real Carbon had about a 50% share in the windsurfing boom and board market. At that point, Graham realized continued growth was going to have to come from a different market. Neighboring gorge companies like CloudCap, now owned by the giant United Technologies Corporation, and Insitu, now owned by Boeing, were developing drones, and a fortuitous turn brought Real Carbon its first UAV opportunity.

“We were lucky enough that CloudCap moved into our building and asked us to make some lightweight carbon fiber stuff,” Graham says. “That was very successful for us and ultimately led to us leaving the windsurfing market.”

For CloudCap, Real Carbon designed a carbon fiber box that could house the autopilot functions of the unmanned crafts. UAVs need lightweight, durable enclosures to protect their computer parts and navigation systems, the brains of the craft, from lighting, outside radio waves and any other electronic interference.

Thanks to the wind sports industry, a few other gorge companies had the carbon fiber manufacturing and design expertise the budding UAV industry needed. As a result, big companies like Insitu now turn to a group of smaller companies like Real Carbon — with its seven employees — to manufacture particular components. There is little to no head-to-head competition because other area companies such as Innovative Composite Engineering (ICE) in White Salmon, Wash., specialize in different components.

ICE also began with windsurfing parts, but they now specialize in tubing and hollow shaped composites.

“Everybody knows the entire market is growing and everybody is just busy growing that market, so we all collaborate very well together,” Graham says.

Real Carbon has seen double digit growth for several consecutive years as the market for UAVs grows. Not all the work is defense-related. Agricultural, geographical and academic demand for UAVs is growing rapidly alongside the military's increasing — and controversial — utilization of drones as anti-terrorism tools.

The success of the UAV market to date validates Graham's early decision to focus company efforts on a particular industry sector, and to partner with other companies that have complementary specialties. To go from surfboards on the Columbia to armed drones over Yemen may seem like an odd transition. But diversification has paid off. And today, windurfing companies in the Gorge are using their collective composite expertise to sail into the new, and now flourishing, UAV market.

Matt Werbach is a freelance journalist based in Hood River.

 

More Articles

Photo Log: The 2015 100 Best Green Workplaces in Oregon

The Latest
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
greenthumbPHOTOS BY JASON E. KAPLAN

Oregon Business celebrated the 100 Best Green Workplaces with an awards luncheon yesterday at the Nines Hotel in downtown Portland.


Read more...

An uncertain future

Guest Blog
Thursday, May 21, 2015
norristhumbBY JASON NORRIS | GUEST BLOGGER

Uncertainty is a part of doing business, whether in through the lens of investment opportunities and risks or the business of running an enterprise.


Read more...

Sun set

June 2015
Friday, May 22, 2015
BY CHRIS NOBLE

The right sunglasses can protect your eyes and look cool at the same time. This being the 21st century, select shades are socially conscious, too. Portland brand Shwood uses wood and other natural materials and manufactures locally. Founded by Ann Sacks, the brand Fetch dedicates a portion of its profits to animal welfare. But whether you choose classic tortiseshell or aviator chic, please, shed the sunglasses when you walk in the door — and, of course, at night. 


Read more...

Urban renewer

Linda Baker
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
UnknownBY LINDA BAKER   

One year after he was appointed chair of the Portland Development Commission, Tom Kelly talks about PDC's longevity, Neil Kelly's comeback and his new role as Portlandia's landlord.


Read more...

Destination Resorts 2.0

June 2015
Friday, May 22, 2015
BY LINDA BAKER | PHOTOS BY JASON E. KAPLAN

As the recession recedes and tourism grows, Central Oregon resorts redefine themselves for a new generation.


Read more...

Up in the Air

June 2015
Friday, May 22, 2015
BY ANNIE ELLISON

Portland tech veteran Ben Berry is leaving his post as Portland’s chief technology officer for a full-time role producing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) aimed at first responders and the military. Berry’s AirShip Technologies Group is poised to be on the ground floor of an industry that will supply drones to as many as 100,000 police, fire and emergency agencies nationwide. He reveals the plan for takeoff.


Read more...

Biker dreams

The Latest
Friday, May 15, 2015
bike at ater wynn-thumbBY KIM MOORE | RESEARCH EDITOR

The Portland Bureau of Transportation is seeking input from businesses on a $5.5 million initiative to create a network of biking, transit and pedestrian trails within Portland’s central city.


Read more...
Oregon Business magazinetitle-sponsored-links-02
SPONSORED LINKS