Scientists create real-life Star Wars-style tractor beam

The "acoustic hologram" created by researchers at two UK universities can suspend objects in mid-air and move them around

No, it’s not a promotional stunt for The Force Awakens, scientists really have created a real-life tractor beam… 


The sonic field, capable of suspending and manipulating objects in mid-air, will remind Star Wars fans of the invisible beam that caught Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon in its grip and drew it towards the Death Star (see also the Borg and the Enterprise in Star Trek).

While this version, demonstrated by researchers from Sussex and Bristol Universities, is not quite ready to move an intergalactic spaceship, it has already managed to lift and suspend a 4mm polystyrene ball.

The device uses 64 miniature speakers to surround an object with high-amplitude sound waves, enveloping it in an “acoustic hologram”. The output of each speaker can then be adjusted in order to move the object around in space. 

“In our device we manipulate objects in mid-air and seemingly defy gravity,” said Sriram Subramanian, Professor of Informatics at the University of Sussex. “We can 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 his fellow researchers are not the first to have created a tractor beam (after all, if The Big Bang Theory has taught us anything it’s that most scientists are also sci-fi geeks) but previous attempts have either been unable to sustain the effect for longer periods or have only worked on much smaller objects. 

After further development the new technology could be used in medical procedures, the researchers explain in scientific journal Nature Communications.

“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 (MRI),” says the article.

One issue that we can foresee with the implementation of a full outer space tractor beam capable of capturing enemy craft is that sound (and presumably therefore the high-intensity sonic waves required for the device) does not travel in a vacuum.

Which is why, as any self-respecting sci-fi fan will tell you, in space nobody can hear you scream. Oh, wait, wrong movie…