Sponsored by Oregon Business

From windsurfer to drone manufacturer

| Print |  Email
Wednesday, May 22, 2013


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

Video: 100 Best Nonprofits to Work For in Oregon 2015

The Latest
Monday, October 05, 2015
100-best-NP-logo-2015-video-thumbVIDEO BY JESSE LARSON

Profiling some of the organizations featured in the 2015 list.


100 Best Nonprofits: Working for equality inside and out

October 2015
Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Striving for social equity is the mission of many nonprofits, and this year’s 100 Best Nonprofits to Work For in Oregon survey shows employees are most satisfied with their organizations’ fair treatment of differing racial, gender, disability, age and economic groups. But as a national discourse about racial discrimination and equity for low-income groups takes center stage, data show Oregon’s 100 Best Nonprofits to Work For still need to make progress on addressing these issues within their own organizations.


Fare Thee Well, Company Town

October 2015
Monday, September 28, 2015

Corporate headquarters are no longer a marker of economic prowess.


Aim High

September 2015
Thursday, August 20, 2015

We get the education we deserve.


Straight shooter

Linda Baker
Thursday, October 08, 2015
100815-bradleyBY LINDA BAKER

In an era dominated by self-promotion and marketing speak, John Bradley, CEO of R&H Construction, a Portland-based commercial construction company, is a breath of fresh air.


Social media transforming sports business

The Latest
Thursday, September 24, 2015

The traditional model of sports teams using paid media to get their message across is disappearing as teams look instead to social media to interact with fans.


Money Troubles

September 2015
Thursday, August 20, 2015

The state’s angel investing fund gets hammered in Salem.

Oregon Business magazinetitle-sponsored-links-02