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Scientists show off sonic tractor beam

The technology could potentially be used to deliver medical therapies.

By Brooks Hays
Scientists show off sonic tractor beam
An altered photograph shows how the sonic tractor beam works to trap the tiny sphere in a sonic force field. Photo by Asier Marzo/Bruce Drinkwater/Sriram Subramanian

FALMER, England, Oct. 27 (UPI) -- Researchers have unveiled the first-ever sonic tractor beam, capable of lifting and moving objects using only sound waves.

Tractor beams from science-fiction narratives typically consist of some sort of laser-like column able to pick up and manipulate spaceships. In reality, the new technology isn't quite that powerful.

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Designed by scientists at the University of Sussex, the newly unveiled tractor beam uses small, specially arranged speakers to move a tiny ball made of polystyrene. A collection of 64 mini loudspeakers creates columns of dense sound waves.

These sonic columns create a sort of force field that traps the ball in the air. By changing the levels and distribution of the high-pitched and high-intensity sound waves, the device can move ball through the air.

"In our device we manipulate objects in mid-air and seemingly defy gravity," Sriram Subramanian, Sussex researcher, said in a press release. "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."

In a new paper, published this week in the journal Nature Communications, scientists detailed three acoustic force fields shapes that can be used to trap and move tiny objects. The shapes resemble a pair of tweezers, a vortex and a cage.

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Researchers say the technology could potentially be used to deliver medical therapies. For examples, sound waves could maneuver a drug capsule through soft tissue.

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