Bristol engineers develop Star Trek style tractor beam

1413849918201_wps_10_Star_Trek_Tractor_BeamA team of engineers from Bristol has invented a Star Trek style tractor beam that  grabs, holds and moves small objects without touching them, using “holograms” made of sound waves.

The team has been thinking small, and so far has tested the design on small pea-sized objects, which they can manipulate from 30 to 40cm away.

According to the popular science magazine Nature Communications, they think the work could help develop remote surgical instruments.

Bruce Drinkwater from the University of Bristol, one of the study’s authors said that the team programmed a grid of small speakers to emit ultrasound in intricate, shifting patterns, crafting shapes from the interacting waves that resembled tweezers, bottles, and tiny tornado-like twisters.

These “holograms” were able to control small beads up to 5mm across. Crucially, the design works from just one side – including above or below the beads – instead of requiring the object to be surrounded by loudspeakers.

Drinkwater said the holy grail in this field is to use this sort of manipulation in, for example, targeted drug delivery.

“Our method, we hope, will now be applied, both at a smaller scale – maybe for medical purposes – and at a larger scale, potentially for handling dangerous materials in some sort of non-contact production line.”

The work builds on research from the University of Dundee, published last year, had already demonstrated that sound waves could tug an object towards a sound source.

The Bristol engineers say their tech could eventually help deliver drugs in a targeted way

They used a clinically approved device, which was designed for doing focused ultrasound surgery which was programmed that to create the same sort of beams that the Scots did.

Next up, should be a sonic screwdriver.