Jan 4, 2017 | By Tess

You could be one step closer to your dream of becoming an evil mastermind with this 3D printed tractor beam you can build yourself. Of course, you won’t be pulling in asteroids with it so much as small particles and tiny insects, but it is still an undeniably cool project.

The tractor beam, which is the first single-sided acoustic tractor beam (meaning it traps and attracts objects using sound waves), was developed by doctoral student Asier Marzo last year, during his time at the Public University of Navarre in Spain. Excitingly, Marzo, now a research assistant at the University of Bristol in the UK, has unveiled an updated, DIY 3D printed tractor beam that anyone (with a bit of experience) can make themselves.

Tractor beams, which have become commonly known through such sci-fi programs as Star Trek, are based on the concept of sonic levitation, which means that sound waves are used to hold and manipulate tiny objects. What is particularly impressive about the 3D printed acoustic tractor beam is that it can not only hold or push objects with its sound waves (which is more common) but can actually pull small objects towards it, mimicking a micro-gravitational pull.

As Marzo explained, “The most important thing is that it can attract the particle towards the source. It’s very easy to push particles from the source, but what's hard is to pull them toward the source; to attract the particles. When you move the tractor beam, the particle moves, but otherwise the trap is static. It can levitate small plastics; it can also levitate a fly and small biological samples. It's quite handy."

The research and build instructions for the DIY 3D printed tractor beam, which have been presented in a video tutorial, are also being published in an upcoming edition of the journal Applied Physics Letters. According to Marzo, the handheld, acoustic tractor beam consists of relatively simple components, such as an Arduino, a motor driver, and 3D printed parts, and can be built for under $70.

How could such a cool, complex-sounding device be so cheap to make? Well, it wasn’t always. The first iterations of the tractor beam involved a phase array, a system which itself requires complex electronics and technology to allow for sound waves to be emitted and controlled to trap the object in their path. The newly updated version, however, does away with these complex components and instead utilizes a much simpler (and much cheaper) 3D printed solution.

Called a “static tractor beam”, the new DIY device is reliant on the specific structure of a 3D printed component, which itself structures and manipulates how the sound waves are emitted as they pass through it. This means that the sound can be emitted through a single source and is then transformed by the specially designed 3D printed part.

“We can modulate a simple wave using what's called a metamaterial which is basically a piece of matter with lots of tubes of different lengths,” said Marzo. “The sound passes through these tubes and when it exits the metamaterial, it has the correct phases to create a tractor beam.” And while the solution sounds simple enough, it did take Marzo and his team some time to engineer the 3D printed tubes so that they could be printed on standard desktop 3D printers with lower resolutions.

Marzo and his team have developed three versions of the tractor beam, each with a different size and sound capacity. Still though, the technology is limited by wavelengths of sound, meaning it can only transport objects under a few millimeters in size.

As mentioned, the 3D printed tractor beam is powerful enough to pull in small objects such as beads, or even small insects, a feat which is bound to impress friends, family, and colleagues. In addition to party tricks, however, the tractor beam can also be used to further research in the field of micro-gravity. Questions surrounding the effects of levitating an embryo, or certain types of bacteria can be explored in more depth using the affordable tractor beam.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Robin Leech wrote at 1/4/2017 8:48:20 PM:

This is the guy that should be developing hoverboards and force fields. The question is- How much power does it need per unit of weight repelled/attracted? Could an array of these lift sheets of plastic or be used in such a way as to lift a heavier object? I mean, at $70 a pop it's worth investigating some kind of multi-emitter design.

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