Scappoose's Composites Universal hopes construction of unmanned marine vessels will spur huge job growth
by: Stover E. Harger III HIGH HOPES — A Composites Universal staff member works on this advanced prototype of a Harbor Wing Technologies vessel.

Last week, standing near a sprawling mast-like object that resembles a futuristic aircraft wing, a group of dignitaries marvels.

But it's not merely the scientific innovation of the Harbor Wing Technologies project being constructed by Scappoose's own Composites Universal that has gotten their attention.

No, it's that one magic word that has received much of the focus here in Columbia County: Jobs.

Three-hundred of them to be exact. That's the hope at least.

Composites Universal hopes to ramp up manufacturing of these AUSVs, or Autonomous Unmanned Surface Vessels, for the Harbor Wing Technologies company, which has offices in Seattle and Pearl Harbor. With some state investments and other funding sources, Composites President and CEO Steve Ruege said his company could potentially add 300 high-wage jobs within the next two years.

'This is transformational,' said State Sen. Betsy Johnson. 'This is a very big deal.'

At the moment, Composites Universal employs around 50 people at their Scappoose-based facilities. The machinery on display July 13 took about six months to complete, but that included engineering time. Ruege said future vessels will go much quicker.

In simple terms, the AUSV prototype being finalized in Scappoose - in cooperation with the U.S. Navy - utilizes aerospace technology on a marine vehicle. The technology uses robotics, wind power propulsion, surveillance equipment, composite materials and precise computer controls to sail along water in precise silence for much longer periods than manned vessels could.

There are most certainly military applications for these vessels (similar to the unmanned 'Predator' aircraft), including covert surveillance, but the capabilites don't end there. Johnson is hopeful that the technology can be used for marine research purposes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has apparently taken an interest in using the technology.

Ruege said the ultimate goal would be to manufacture as many as 70 of these vessels every year. He will be lobbying the government to bring in dollars so his company can significantly increase its manufacturing capabilites at its Scappoose Industrial Airpark location.

Each vessel would range in cost depending on a variety of modifications, but Ruege said it would generally be in the low millions.

Composites Universal, which specializes in fabricating low-weight, high-strength devices out of composite material, took on this project last year at a time when it hit a lull in projects flowing in from its primary clients in the aviation industry.

For Johnson, the work by Composites Universal, not to mention the research and development underway at Oregon Aero, also located at the Scappoose airport, means big things for the future of the city and the county.

'Where's the new R and D (Research and Development)? It's right there,' she said.

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