A revolutionary piece of technology portrayed in Star Wars and Star Trek could be coming to a hospital near you. Scientists have developed a tractor beam, a hypothetical beam of energy capable of levitating items and holding them stationary. The device could be used to move objects inside the body, such as blood clots, kidney stones and micro-surgical instruments, without the need for an incision.
The recently created tractor beam is a long way away from the tractor beams portrayed in high-budget Hollywood films. It uses tiny speakers to levitate objects with sound waves. By controlling the sound of the speakers, scientists can move small objects with an invisible hand. Currently, the researchers can levitate small beads about two diameters in size but hope to levitate smaller objects, like human cells, and larger objects, like footballs, in the near future.
It’s long been realized that tractor beams are theoretically possible. Nevertheless, the study was significant in the sense that it was the first time scientists were able to manipulate and control an object mid-air. Approximately 64 speakers that emit sound beyond human hearing were used to hold, contain and pull the object.
A history of failed tractor beams
Last year, the University of Dundee had similar success with their own tractor beam, but it failed to exert control over objects for extended periods of time. Optical tractor beams with high-powered laser beams have also been built, but can only move very small objects.
“Acoustic structures shaped as tweezers, twisters, or bottles emerge as the optimum mechanisms for tractor beams or containerless transportation,” explained the researchers in a paper published in Nature. “Single-beam levitation could manipulate particles inside our body for applications in targeted drug delivery or acoustically controlled micro-machines that do not interfere with magnetic resonance imaging.”
As revealed in the video below, the researchers illustrate how objects can be moved around without the push of a human hand. In another study, researchers were able to pull an object, rather than merely repel it, with a twister-like cyclone similar to a tractor beam.
Asier Marzo, a PhD student and head of the project, told sources that he immediately took a picture of the device the first time it levitated an object and sent it to comrades working on the project.
“It was an incredible experience the first time we saw the object held in place by the tractor beam,” he said. “Finally, after months of beads being spitted uncontrollably from the tractor beam we had success. All my hard work has paid off, it’s brilliant.”
The future of tractor beams
The obvious purpose of the tractor beam is to move objects. Nevertheless, these devices could have multiple applications. They could be applied to the skin and manipulate objects inside the human body for the better, such as dissolving kidney stones and moving capsules.
Larger versions could be used to shift bigger objects in warehouses. More developed tractor beams could even enable astronauts to control large objects floating in space without having to leave their capsules.
Dyed in the wool Star Wars fans won’t be satisfied by the recently developed tractor beam, however. Unlike the tractor beams portrayed in Star Wars, which are capable of physically moving spacecraft, the tractor beam developed by researchers wouldn’t work in outer space.
The recently developed tractor beam relies on the manipulation of sound waves. Sound waves require an atmosphere to propagate. Since space is devoid of an atmosphere, the tractor beam wouldn’t be able to function in a vacuum. It’s the same reason why the lasers fired by spacecraft in the Star Wars movies wouldn’t actually make noise.
Of course, technology builds upon itself. The first fully functional tractor beam is a small episode in a much larger franchise. The world of science will continue to barrow from the world of science fiction, and vice versa, with our without a tractor beam.