BY MATT WERBACH | OB CORRESPONDENT
The 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.