Futuristic Inventions: Tractor Beams Become Reality As British Scientists Create Working Tractor Beam
We all love futuristic inventions. If you are a Star Wars fan, you will undoubtedly remember the thrilling moment when the Millennium Falcon is giving chase to a single Tie Fighter, only to get caught in a tractor beam emitted from the Death Star. Likewise, if you are a fan of Star Trek, you will remember the countless times the Enterprise locked a tractor beam onto either an enemy vessel or damaged spacecraft. Tractor beams have featured consistently in sci-fi, with that name, since author E.E. Smith first developed and named the concept in 1931’s Spacehounds of IPC.
Regardless of what your frame of reference is, you will be familiar with the concept of a tractor beam as a means to move or secure cargo, another ship’s passengers, or to stop enemies from escaping. While we are still a long way off from the capabilities of the Death Star or the Starship Enterprise, scientists from the University of Bristol and Sussex in the UK have taken the science fiction of a tractor beam and made it science fact. In miniature form.
Science Fiction Influencing Science – Past Examples
It is not unusual for technology, gadgets, and other concepts that appear in science fiction to become the futuristic inventions of our reality. In fact, the science world has often taken inspiration from science fiction.
For instance, without Jules Verne‘s 1870 classic 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Simon Lake may not have been so taken by the idea of exploration of the world’s seas. In 1890, Lake and his company built the first submarine to operate successfully in the open sea. The Argonaut had a periscope, ballast tanks and diver’s compartments.
Similarly, Robert H. Goddard was responsible for building and launching the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926. He first became interested in the idea of space flight when he read a newspaper’s serialization of the classic HG Wells novel, War Of The Worlds.
Even when you look to the aforementioned Star Trek, there is a distinct correlation between technologies and gadgetry that featured in both the show and the accompanying movies that did not exist at the time, but do now. A stunning example of this is the USS Enterprise‘s communicators that Kirk and the crew used to communicate with each other, regardless of where they were. This first appeared in the original series 1966 episode The Cage.
Although there are other influences from science fiction, including Arthur C. Clarke, that inspired the invention of the mobile phone, the Star Trek communicator definitely played a part.
Motorola first introduced and demonstrated a hand-held mobile phone in 1973. That led to the DynaTAC 8000x becoming commercially available in 1983. These very clunky, expensive, and very heavy phones evolved as technology improved. By the mid-90s, mobile phones were smaller, more compact, and some even needed to be flipped open to use – just like the communicator in Star Trek.
Even the science and scientists working in the constantly evolving world of robotics owe a sizeable debt of gratitude to science fiction. Isaac Asimov, who penned and edited over 500 books, is credited with using the word “robotics” first. It appeared in the opening line of his 1941 short story Liar.
So it is unsurprising that scientists have been fascinated by the idea of a tractor beam for decades.
British Designed Sound Wave Tractor Beam
The tractor beam, created by a team led by Ph.D. student Asier Marzo, consists of high amplitude sound waves that form acoustic holograms that can grab and move objects. These holograms, shaped liked cages, twisters, and fingers, are the first of their kind that can actually exert force on particles to manipulate and move them.
Although the findings by the team, published in Nature Communications, do not mean that space shuttles and the International Space Station will be able to tether other ships or asteroids anytime soon, it could prove to be very useful on Earth.
The team believe that the holograms could be used in situations where human touch is impossible or dangerous – on a production line for example. Theoretically, in the form of fingers, they would be helpful handling and constructing objects that were either too small or too delicate for human touch. They could also be used in surgery where a miniature form of the tractor beam or hologram could maneuver and operate micro-surgical instruments or distribute drugs in the human body.
The team of scientists worked with the company Ultrahaptics. The company was formed in 2013, after the development of technology that enabled users to get tactile feedback using ultrasound projections without the need to wear or touch anything. This tech itself also originates from the University of Bristol.
Future Plans And Applications
In order to push the concept further to create their “tractor beam”, the team of scientists used a total of 64 miniature loudspeakers to create a high intensity, high-pitched sound waves. Those sound waves formed a forcefield that would be able to hold objects. Then with careful control of the speakers’ output they could also manoeuvre held objects.
At the time of the study being published, the team had only used the tractor beam in three basic configurations – a cage that surrounds an object and holds it in place, a twister that traps an object in its centre, and a pair of tweezers/fingers that can be used to hold an object.
The next obvious step for the team is to try and build variations using the same technique that could be used for different applications. Excitingly, they are already developing a bigger version of the tractor beam they hope will be able to levitate a football from around 10 metres away, and a smaller version for use at manipulating and manoeuvring tiny particles within the human body.
So, we may not be close to seeing a real-life recreation of that scene from Star Wars mentioned at the outset. But if the past has shown us anything, it’s that the science fiction of yesterday eventually becomes the science fact of tomorrow.