Science of Star Wars: Tractor beams

The key task that Obi-wan Kenobi had aboard the Death Star was to disable its tractor beam.  It’s a great literary technology that creates drama for our space-faring crew.  But we’re finally getting some technical merit behind that technology.

The University of Sussex reports:

Researchers at the Universities of Sussex and Bristol, in collaboration with Ultrahaptics, have now built a working tractor beam that uses high-amplitude soundwaves to generate an acoustic hologram that can pick up and move small objects.

This could be an incredibly significant development.  This team has created what amounts to an “acoustic hologram” – a 3D sound field that can manipulate an object in 3D space.  It seems like a simple premise – once you can control an object using the field of sound wave generators, you can develop software to manipulate that object.

Even when upside down, the device can lift and manipulate an object.

I might take issue with this really being a tractor beam from Star Wars (or Star Trek).  Since there’s no atmosphere in space, then sound waves have no medium through which to travel.  It is an interesting means of achieving levitation.  Being able to repel from an object (perhaps the ground?) in a fashion that doesn’t require magnetic fields would have significant opportunities.

Copyright Lucasfilm
Luke and C3PO in his speeder on Tatooine

I am a big skeptic of devices like hoverboards or floating speeders – they imply an unheard of energy density to fit inside of a person-sized device to lift (and propel) said person.  But there was also the method for levitation that was also a challenge.  Some kind of thruster wouldn’t be practical (energy density and thrust control) and a magnetic repulsion would require a magnetic surface on which to operate.  This is really the first means of hovering that escapes those particular limitations. Though the  energy requirements might still be impractical, this approach has a lot of merit.


This would be an interesting use of this technology though:

Count Dooku holds Obi-wan prisoner
Count Dooku holds Obi-wan prisoner




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