Start-up that could speed up the Aerospace work.

Gelsight’s handheld wand produces 3D maps of the topography of surfaces with accuracy down to the … [+]

Johnson’s Boston-area startup, Gelsight, aims to provide a more accurate but equally fast alternative with a handheld probe it’s developed. The tip contains a clear gel pad that, like our fleshy fingertips, can conform around an object. Using computer vision techniques, the system “turns touch into an image,” allowing it to measure surface features down to the single-digit micron level. 

The company is starting to get traction: A number of large aerospace companies are moving toward deploying the tool, Johnson says, including airplane engine maker Rolls-Royce.

Now Gelsight has raised $10 million in a B round that takes its total funding to $11.8 million. It’s expecting revenue to top $4 million this year on sales of over 100 systems and 2,500 gel cartridges.

The device is based on work by MIT professor Edward Adelson, a specialist in computer vision who became fascinated by how the sense of touch worked while raising his children. After learning from colleagues that no one yet had developed an artificial tactile sensor with anywhere near the ability of human skin, Adelson set out to do so, leveraging his vision expertise.

The company is starting to get traction: A number of large aerospace companies are moving toward deploying the tool, Johnson says, including airplane engine maker Rolls-Royce. 

Adelson developed a clear pad made of a rubbery thermoplastic elastomer that was coated on one face with a metallic paint. When an object is pressed into the painted side, it takes on the object’s shape and presents a surface that a camera can easily capture a high-fidelity image of through the gel, without distortions from variations of reflective or transparent elements in the object. Johnson built the hardware and wrote algorithms to accurately map surfaces using image processing and machine learning techniques.

Johnson launched Gelsight in 2011 with CTO Janos Rohaly, a former MIT postdoc who had helped build a dental 3D imaging startup that was acquired by 3M, and former CEO Bill Yost. They made a series of one-off benchtop machines for corporate R&D departments with gel pads optimized for specific applications, such as a toothpaste maker that squished globs of paste to assess its mix of abrasives.

In conjunction with the $10 million fundraising round, which was led by the venture capital firm Anzu Partners, Gelsight added two former high-ranking military aviation officers to its board to help it crack the defense market, where the pressure is intense to quickly inspect hard-used aircraft and get them back in the air.

The company is also adapting the technology to make robotic hands that can judge hardness, making them better able to handle delicate and small objects.

Johnson. A saxophonist and guitarist, he double-majored in music and math at the University of New Hampshire and had contemplated trying to make a career in music until he developed an interest in computer science while studying for a master’s in electro-acoustic music at Dartmouth. Leaving academia to found a business is another move he wasn’t planning, but he says startup life reminds him of being in a rock band.

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