World’s first sonic tractor beam lifts objects using sound waves

Researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Sussex, in collaboration with Ultrahaptics, have built the world’s first sonic tractor beam that can lift and move objects using sound waves.

Details of the device, published in Nature Communications, describe how the tractor beam uses high-amplitude sound waves to generate an acoustic hologram that is capable of picking up and moving small objects. The technique comes straight from the pages of a science-fiction novel.

“It was an incredible experience the first time we saw the object held in place by the tractor beam,” said Asier Marzo, PhD student and the lead author of the study.

The tractor beam works by using 64 miniature loudspeakers to create high-pitch and high-intensity sound waves. The resulting waves surround the object with sound and this creates a force field that keeps the object in place. By carefully controlling the output of the loudspeakers the object can be either be held in place, moved or rotated.

Sriram Subramanian, professor of Informatics at the University of Sussex and co-founder of Ultrahaptics, which is also working on using ultrasound to bring touch to virtual reality, explained: “In our device we manipulate objects in mid-air and seemingly defy gravity. Here we 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.”

Images courtesy of Asier Marzo, Bruce Drinkwater and Sriram Subramanian © 2015

Images courtesy of Asier Marzo, Bruce Drinkwater and Sriram Subramanian © 2015

The researchers hope the tractor beam can be developed to serve a wide range of applications. They describe how the current device could be used to transport delicate objects and assemble them, without the need for physical contact, or a miniature version could grip and transport drug capsules or microsurgical instruments through living tissue.

Depending on the desired application the research team have developed three different shapes of tractor beams. The first is an acoustic force field that resembles a pair of fingers or tweezers. The second is an acoustic vortex, the objects becoming stuck-in and then trapped at the core and the third is best described as a high-intensity cage that surrounds the objects and holds them in place from all directions.

Although the concept of an acoustic force field has long been envisioned by scientists, engineers and science-fiction writers, this breakthrough represents the first realised version of a sonic tractor beam that can lift and move objects using sound waves.

Previous work on acoustic studies had to surround the object with loudspeakers, which limits the extent of movement and restricts many applications.

Last year, the University of Dundee presented the concept of a tractor beam but no objects were held in the ray.

Australian Prime Minister demands end to encryption

The Australian government has proposed legislation that would force messaging apps like WhatsApp to decrypt encrypted messages. “The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia," said Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

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Samsung's Bixby virtual assistant now available in the US

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You can now explore the International Space Station with Google Street View

If you’ve ever wondered what life is like aboard the International Space Station then Google has a treat in store for you because beginning today the ISS is available via Google Maps’ Street View.

Astronauts have been working and living on the ISS – a structure made up of 15 connected modules that floats 250 miles above Earth – for the past 16 years.

Now with Street View regular citizens can explore the station, and go everywhere from the sleeping quarters to where the space suits are kept. This is the first time Street View has ventured beyond planet Earth, and for the benefit of viewers the Street View feature also comes annotated, with handy little dots you can click on to explain what everything does, which is another first.

“In the six months that I spent on the International Space Station, it was difficult to find the words or take a picture that accurately describes the feeling of being in space,” said European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet in a blog post.

“Working with Google on my latest mission, I captured Street View imagery to show what the ISS looks like from the inside, and share what it’s like to look down on Earth from outer space.”

In his blog post, Pesquet goes on to describe how because of the constraints associated with living and working in space, it wasn’t possible to collect Street View using Google’s usual methods.

Instead, the Street View team worked with NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama to design a gravity-free method of collecting the imagery using DSLR cameras and equipment already on the ISS.

Still photos were captured in space that were sent down to Earth where they were stitched together to create panoramic 360 degree imagery of the ISS.

Images courtesy of Google

“There are a lot of obstacles up there, and we had limited time to capture the imagery,” recalled Pesquet.

“Oh, and there’s that whole zero gravity thing.”

Pesquet ended his blog post by revealing the inspiration behind the Street View and ISS collaboration.

“Looking at Earth from above made me think about my own world a little differently, and I hope that the ISS on Street View changes your view of the world too.” said Pesquet.