Researchers Invent a Sonic Tractor Beam

Posted on October 27, 2015

Researchers from the University of Sussex have invented what they are calling a sonic tractor beam. The device uses three-dimensional acoustic fields to exert forces on objects and lift and move them.

Tractor beams are mysterious rays that grab and lift objects in science fiction films and novels. Researchers at the Universities of Sussex and Bristol, working with a company named Ultrahaptics, have built a small-scale device that uses high-amplitude sound waves to generate an acoustic hologram that can pick up and move small objects. The device was built using an array of 64 miniature loudspeakers. The entire system uses 9 Watts of power. It creates high-pitched and high-intensity sound waves to levitate a spherical bead (up to 4mm in diameter) made of expanded polystyrene.

The researchers say one application for the technology could be transporting delicate objects and assembling them on a sonic assembly line without any physical contact. A miniature version of the sonic tractor beam could grip and transport drug capsules or microsurgical instruments.

Asier Marzo, Sussex PhD student and lead author of the study, says in a statement, "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."

Sriram Subramanian, Professor of Informatics at the University of Sussex and co-founder of Ultrahaptics, adds, "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."

Subramanian and Marzo explain the sonic tractor beam in this video:

A research paper on the invention was published here in the journal, Nature Communications.

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