A few years ago, Bryan Dow and Alex Kubicek noticed a problem — a deficiency in comprehensive, reliable data and analysis from weather across the United States. Their solution was to begin developing a surface-level weather station that could offer a more precise, real-time observation of what was happening below the cloud level.
“Radar gives a great view of what’s happening above the surface of the earth, but not what’s happening on the ground — where people live and where weather impacts them,” explains Dow, an engineering grad from University of Wisconsin-Madison.
With that in mind, he and Kubicek, a fellow engineer with a master's in atmospheric and oceanic science, gathered $10,000 from family and friends to start laying the early design foundation for the small weather station. Under the company name Subsidence, the two soon joined an accelerator group in Madison, which provided an additional $18,000 to continue development.
Their first prototype version was essentially a sealed, waterproof pelican case that housed the required circuitry and sensors. The design provided adequate protection from the elements, but Dow and Kubicek wanted a prototype that offered a much better fit for the components, including a radiation shield that had yet to be fully developed. Iterations to move them closer to a production-ready unit and the additional resources to do so were needed.
A concept rendering of Understory's unit shows the internal components.
In July of 2013, their idea caught the attention of Bolt — a seed stage fund that supplies startups like Subsidence with capital, equipment and staff. From there, things truly accelerated. Bolt granted Dow and Kubicek another $50,000, they moved to Bolt’s headquarters in Boston and they dropped the name Subsidence. “We changed the name because no one could pronounce it,” jokes Dow. “But really, we wanted a name that would be more representative of what our devices do ... tell the story underneath the clouds.” And thus, Dow, Kubicek, and a third engineer, Alex Jacobs, co-founded Understory.
Inside Bolt, Understory began refining the weather station. They developed a radiation shield with an in-house 3D printer using fused deposition modeling (FDM); they created a wind tunnel to determine the sensor’s calibration curves; they even tried building a different sensor that proved overly complicated. Nine months after joining Bolt, Understory secured $1.9 million in funding from a series of investors that will now allow them to bring a production-ready weather station to market.
The current unit weighs less than 10 lbs. and is about 2 ft. tall, capped on the top with a metal ball about 8 in. in diameter. The plastic radiation shield is now injection-molded at Proto Labs in a white polycarbonate for UV-stability along with the unit’s temperature chamber. Their propriety solid-state sensor, which lives in the upper half of the unit, lets the weather station detect and analyze a number of surface-level environmental situations like temperature, air pressure, humidity, lightening, rain and hail. That data is then transferred through a cellular network and stored in Understory’s servers, which hold the information from every unit deployed.
Like traditional anemometers, Understory’s weather stations are able to measure north/south and east/west wind movement, but unlike those anemometers, the stations detect the updraft and downdraft of wind. Why is this important? “You can see a front of a developing thunderstorm moving in much better than current technology allows,” says Dow.
Right now, however, Dow and company are really focusing on the data set that the units provide on those damaging ice chunks that often fall from the sky. “When the metal ball gets struck with a piece of hail, it registers the direction that the piece of hail struck the ball, how fast it was moving and the size of the hail that struck it,” describes Dow. “From that, we’re able to get hail analytics, which is something that hasn’t been done really well before.”
For Understory’s first customer, a national insurance company, this hail information is particularly useful. When a volatile storm is approaching, the weather stations can track the presence of hail within a 1-mile radius — a significant improvement over current methods. Currently, insurance companies find hail damage from models that interpret radar data to find the hail swaths, the intensity and the area where the hail fell. This radar-derived method may have hail swaths that are 20 to 30 miles off and the results show hail damage in an area that never saw a storm. The Understory weather stations bring a clarity to hail data that hasn't been seen before, and this improved hail data provides a great deal of insight for the insurance company.
A weather station is mounted 30-feet high on a cell tower.
Aside from insurance companies, potential customers include local weather stations or a broader agricultural target. “Our business model is the data generated by the sensors, so we see the devices as permanent installations that will service many different customers,” says Dow.
Understory has started deploying its first wave of weather stations in a few targeted cities known for more extreme weather conditions and plans to eventually expand up to 80 units per city and in three other cities across the country. The units are currently mounted 30-feet high on cell phone towers, but Dow hopes to secure other structures in the future that can support the stations. Over the next year or so, the team also intends to move from AC to solar-powered units.
A year after joining Bolt, Understory has graduated from the seed stage fund, but its headquarters will remain in the Boston area as it continues to advance its groundbreaking weather station.