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Research Team Creates First Sonic Tractor Beam

29 October 2015

Tractor beams are a phenomenon that has been fascinating science-fiction enthusiasts for some time (in programs like Star Trek). Now, even engineers and scientists are getting in on the action.

A team of researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Sussex along with Ultrahaptics have developed the world's first sonic tractor beam that can lift and move objects using sound waves.

3-D field created by the research team. First-of-its kind acoustic hologram that can move objects. Image Credit: Asier Marzo, Bruce Drinkwater and Sriram Subramanian 3-D field created by the research team. First-of-its kind acoustic hologram that can move objects. Image Credit: Asier Marzo, Bruce Drinkwater and Sriram Subramanian The working tractor beam uses high-amplitude sound waves to generate an acoustic hologram that can pick up and move 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,” says Asier Marzo, PhD student and the lead author of the study.

The device was used by the researchers to create the beam consisted of 64 miniature loud speakers that created high-pitch and high-intensity sound waves. The tractor beam worked by surrounding the object with high-intensity sound, which created a force field that kept the objects in place. By carefully controlling the output of the loudspeakers, the object can be held in place, moved or rotated.

"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,” says Sriram Subramanian, professor of Informatics at the University of Sussex and co-founder of Ultrahaptics.

The team has demonstrated three different shapes of acoustic force fields that work as tractor beams. The first is an acoustic force field that looks like a pair of fingers or tweezers. The second is an acoustic vortex where the objects are trapped at the core, and the third is described by the team as a high-intensity cage that surrounds the objects and holds them in place from all directions.

The technique could be used in a variety of applications. For example, a sonic production line could transport delicate objects and assemble them, all without physical contact, or even a smaller version could be used to transport drugs through living tissue.

To contact the author of this article, email [email protected]

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