Scientists Have Built a Tractor Beam Right out of 'Star Trek'

The device uses sound waves to levitate, move, and rotate objects without touching them. It's science fiction IRL.

Alien abduction fantasies just got a little bit more believable. Engineers in the United Kingdom have built a tractor beam that uses a sonic force field to hold and manipulate small objects.

“It was an incredible experience the first time we saw the object held in place by the tractor beam. All my hard work has paid off, it’s brilliant,” said lead author Asier Marzo in a statement. The research was recently published in Nature Communications.

How it works: A array of tiny loudspeakers creates an acoustic hologram that can hold an object, move it through space, and rotate it.

Asier Marzo, Bruce Drinkwater, and Sriram Subramanian

“The team have shown that three different shapes of acoustic force fields work as tractor beams,” according to the news release.

While sonic force fields have been used to manipulate objects before, this is the first time that a single, flat array of speakers has been able to lock in an object, regardless of the direction of gravity.

An illustration of an acoustic hologram holding a small bead in the air.

Asier Marzo, Bruce Drinkwater, and Sriram Subramanian

“The first is an acoustic force field that resembles a pair of fingers or tweezers. The second is an acoustic vortex, the objects becoming stuck-in and then trapped at the core and the third is best described as a high-intensity cage that surrounds the objects and holds them in place from all directions.”

The researchers believe that, in the future, the sonic tractor beam could be used in assembly lines, handling delicate objects without touching them. Alternatively, a microscopic version could one day deliver drugs and microsurgical instruments into living tissue.

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