Eat your heart out Captain Kirk – tractor beam that uses SOUND can hold, move and even rotate objects without physical contact.

We’ve all seen tractor beams in science fiction films from Star Trek to Star Wars to pull in smaller ships, but now a UK based team has developed an actual tractor beam that works.

A sonic tractor beam

Researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Sussex, in collaboration with Ultrahaptics, put together 64 miniature loudspeakers to create high-pitch and high-intensity sound waves.

They could then surround small objects with high-intensity sound and create an actual force field that keeps them in place.

By controlling the output of the speakers, the team was then able to keep the object in place, move it around or rotate it.

They even managed to create an acoustic force field resembling a pair of tweezers or fingers, an acoustic vortex where the objects get stuck in and then trapped at the centre and a high-intensity cage surrounding the objects and holding them in place from all directions.

This video posted on YouTube by the Bristol Interaction and Graphics group, a research group within Bristol University’s faculty of engineering shows the technique in use.

“Gravity-defying”

Sriram Subramanian, Professor of Informatics at the University of Sussex and co-founder of Ultrahaptics, said: “In our device we manipulate objects in mid-air and seemingly defy gravity. “

“Here we individually control dozens of loudspeakers to tell us an optimal solution to generate an acoustic hologram that can manipulate multiple objects in real-time without contact.”

Potential uses for the technology

Ok, we may not yet be at the scale of space ships yet. But the research, published in Nature Communications, could be used to develop sonic production lines to move delicate objects and put them together without physical contact.

A mini version could grip and transport drug capsules or microsurgical instruments through living tissue.

But perhaps the final word on this post is best to left to Spock, who once said: “Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”

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