The world's first working sonic tractor beam has been invented by researchers, bringing to reality a concept that has long been a staple of science fiction. By utilising high-amplitude sound waves to generate an acoustic hologram, the tractor beam is capable of picking up and moving small objects.

The sonic tractor beam technique, published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, was developed by researchers at the Universities of Bristol and Sussex in collaboration with Bristol-based startup Ultrahaptics. It involves an array of 64 miniature loudspeakers to create high-pitch and high-intensity sound waves that form acoustic holograms.

"Our sonic tractor beam technology utilises ultrasound of 40 kHz frequency," Deepak Sakoo, a researcher at the University of Sussex who was involved in the paper, told IBTimes UK. "Above audible frequency the size of the object is limited to around 8 mm in air. However, using multiple lifting handles our technology can lift objects as large as 1m."

Improving cancer treatment with acoustic holograms

Different holographic shapes can be created using this technique in order to manipulate an object, including tweezers, cages and fingers. The team behind it believe the technology could have numerous applications in a variety of fields, such as the transportation and assembly of delicate objects on production lines without the need for physical contact. The most immediate application is expected to be in medicine.

"The most realistic application of this technology would in healthcare," Sakoo said. "Targeted drug delivery could be achieved using the tractor beam to hold the encapsulated drugs in place inside the human body where desired so that they can be slowly released.

"Cancer treatments like chemotherapy currently require flooding the body with the drug - if this could be more locally delivered it would be a major breakthrough. The good news is that there are current ultrasonic techniques for delivering the drugs (they neutralise the drug in a micro-capsule, which is blown open by high power ultrasound). So we could move and hold the micro-capsules in place (e.g., at a tumor) and periodically blast them open."