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Engineers make real working tractor beam


Tangled tractor beam wires could soon be a familiar sight.

The Death Star’s tractor beam could soon be made real. Engineers in the UK have developed a system that can grab, move and hold objects using holograms made of sound waves. At the moment, it only moves objects about the size of a pea, but one day could scale up to move spaceship-sized objects.

Though unsurprisingly, that’s not their immediate aim. Instead, they want to use it to develop remote surgical instruments.

The system works by holding an object in space using high-intensity sound waves. Move the sound waves, and the pattern of the boundary they create shifts, moving the object with it.

The sound waves were emitted from a grid of small speakers, and moved in intricate, shifting patterns. The resultant ‘holograms’ were able to control objects up to 5mm in diameter.


These small beads are surfing on sound waves.

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, professor Bruce Drinkwater, one of the study’s authors, said this technology could have a wide range of uses.

“Our method, we hope, will now be applied, both at a smaller scale – maybe for medical purposes – and at a larger scale, potentially for handling dangerous materials in some sort of non-contact production line.”

Drinkwater’s team’s research built upon a 2014 Dundee study that showed that sound waves could tug an object towards a sound source. The main difference between the two is that Drinkwater’s team – from the University of Bristol, Bristol-based firm Ultrahaptics and the University of Sussex – built their own speaker system from scratch.

Of the Dundee study, Drinkwater told the BBC: “That was the starting point for us thinking, actually, this could be possible. They showed that the force existed and they measured it experimentally – but they didn’t hold anything stably.

“Our mission, as it were, was to try and take that and make it into a stable, working tractor beam, that could actually hold objects and move and manipulate them.”

Let’s hope they don’t licence the technology to the Galactic Empire.

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