As soon as mankind is able to fly personal spacecraft throughout the cosmos, one major tenet of sci-fi stories will become a reality: tractor beams. These ship-grabbing devices complicated the escape plans of Luke Skywalker & Co. in Star Wars, but also served as a useful tool across the various Star Trek iterations. While the sci-fi tractor beams require huge amounts of energy (like the first Death Star’s 768 tractor beam generators) or are explained as the exotic-sounding “attenuated linear graviton beam”, the reality of tractor beams is much simpler. So simple, in fact, that you can make a portable one at home using a 3D printer (and a lot of electronics).
LiveScience brought this super-cool device to our attention after an instructional video from Bristol Interaction & Graphics. While the video shows us how the portable tractor beam is constructed, the science behind the achievement is laid out in a recent paper published in the journal Applied Physics Letters. Far from being the first-ever tractor beam — they’ve actually been around in theory since the 1960s and in practice in one form or another since the 1980s — this particular achievement makes strides in the use of sound waves to levitate and stabilize small objects, even fruit flies. And while acoustic tractor beams won’t function in the vacuum of space with no medium for sound waves to travel through, this DIY portable device is perfect for work here on Earth and packs a lot of power for its minimal energy demands.
With a simple 3D-printed bowl, an electrical circuit complete with computer hardware components like the open-source Arduino board, a bit of software, a bunch of electromagnetic acoustic transducers, and a battery to supply the power, you can have your own tractor beam ready to roll in no time! Okay, it does seem to take a fairly proficient level of electrical engineering and mechanical aptitude, and the physics behind the levitation aren’t for the uninitiated, but the practical explanation is pretty straight-forward. Essentially, sound waves travel through a series of carefully calibrated tubes in an organized manner to act on small bits of matter thanks to the momentum they carry, both pushing and pulling on the target to hold it in place.
Home-based applications might be limited to capturing fruit flies, but scientific applications include manipulation of tiny particles for lab-on-chip work, pharmaceuticals, and studies of levitation’s effects on embryos. But considering that this portable tractor beam resembles the Death Star and gives you the power over the Force, it’s just too cool to pass up!
Will you use your newfound portable tractor beam in service of the Light Side or the Dark Side? Let us know in the comments below!
Image: Bristol Interaction & Graphics