It tears up highways, destroys car bodies, and can poison fish, but is essential any time it snows: road salt. For alumnus Isaac Koch (MechEngr ’16), it is also the source of an engineering job that has taken him from Wyoming to Alaska with technology that can help states stretch their budgets in bad weather.
Koch is a mechanical engineer at WeatherCloud, a Boulder startup founded in 2013 by two fellow CU Boulder engineering graduates, John Mickey (MechEngr ’08) and Rich Powers (AeroEngr MS ’91, ElecEngr PhD ’07) who had an idea for predicting weather on US Highways using car mounted sensors and the cloud – not the cumulonimbus kind, but rather big data.
“We have two sensors, one on the vehicle bumper and one on the windshield. They collect 15 different real time measurements including ambient and road temperature, vehicle position, and precipitation type,” Koch says.
How is the data used? In the hands of an ordinary driver, it might seem mundane, but for a snowplow dropping rock salt, sand, and magnesium chloride by the ton, it can save money by identifying exactly where road treatment is – and is not – needed.
Of course, to test it you need an area with plenty of regular snow. WeatherCloud started in Colorado, but their equipment is now used in a state with even more extreme weather: Alaska, where they earned a contract with state government.
"Alaska is really aggressive in finding new technology to counter bad weather. I’ve been there twice for WeatherCloud, and what better place could we use our equipment? For potential customers, they know our sensors work where it's minus 20 degrees," Koch says.
They have since begun pilots in Iowa, Wyoming, and Utah, and are looking at further expansion.
Where does Koch fit into the company? He is not a weather guru, he is a techie at heart, and the company keeps him busy with new installations, equipment testing, and manufacturing components. He recently even built a calibration chamber for new road sensors.
It is a job he owes in part to the 2016 Mechanical Engineering Senior Design Exposition. The spring event welcomed hundreds of family members, friends, and critically for Koch – potential employers, like WeatherCloud co-founder John Mickey, who was on the hunt for a new employee.
“Part of my design team’s project included building a device that sent data over a cellular connection, which is exactly how WeatherCloud’s equipment functions," Koch says. "Two weeks later, I was working for them."
Koch is one of many recent mechanical engineering graduates who have landed jobs because of senior design. The reason why is simple, according to WeatherCloud co-founder Rich Powers.
“There’s good people at CU Boulder,” Powers says.
The company is now looking to bring their technology to commercial over-the-road trucking firms. While big rigs do not treat icy roads, winter storms lead to dangerous highways and accidents that cause big traffic backups. WeatherCloud’s equipment would let company dispatchers see road conditions in real time and direct their drivers to alternate routes.
Growing the company into a new area will no doubt bring some additional challenges, but that is part of what Koch likes about working for a startup – they move fast and adapt.
"With some big companies, you do the same task every day. Here I get to work on a broad range of things. It’s a definite perk," Koch says.