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Tractor beams are entering science

A space ship is using a tractor beam to pull up a person. This is a topic for science fiction, or isn’t it anymore? Image credit: D-News

Remember Star Trek? Among the many jaw-dropping features it had, tractor beams were one of those that fascinated me most: a system that could deploy a force on an object over distance, pushing or pulling it.

That was science fiction. As with several other magics we saw in Star Trek also tractor beams are leaving the field of fiction entering in the one of Science. At the Washington University a team of researchers is working on ultra-sounds to create tractor beams.

They started in the small, using optical tweezers (electromagnetic fields) to manipulate nanoparticles forcing them to assemble in the desired order and structure. They moved on to use ultra-sounds for lithotripsy (fracturing in small pieces kidney stones so that they can be expelled).

Now they have created a system that is able to create ultra-sound beams that can move (small size) objects, as shown in the clip. They are able to direct and regulate the ultra-sound power to generate a force acting on the object. Sensors measure the effect and the system finely tune the beams direction and intensity to achieve the desired effect. As shown in the clip an object can levitate, kept floating in the air by invisible ultra-sounds.

It is not -yet- the kind of tractor beam foreseen in Star Trek but it is real applied science. According to the researchers this technology might also be used to generate holograms.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.