You can 3D-print your own Trek-style tractor beam, really

First researchers created a tractor beam that levitates, pulls and pushes objects, just like in Star Trek. Then they modified the design so you can make one at home.

Sci-Tech

Levitating a small plastic sphere with a DIY portable tractor beam.

Asier Marzo

For decades tractor beams have been thought of as science fiction. Now, you can build one yourself.

The team that created the first single-sided acoustic tractor beam capable of trapping and pulling an object from one direction with sound waves has now created a version of the technology that can be 3D-printed by anyone.

As you might remember from Star Trek, a tractor beam was used to trap spaceships, basically immobilizing them in space. The U.S.S. Enterprise could then pull or push the trapped ship around at will.

Asier Marzo, a research assistant at the University of Bristol, was part of a team that developed a tractor beam that can trap small objects in the real world. It levitates, pushes and pulls them them in mid-air using sound waves.

Marzo has since modified the technology, creating a new design that can be assembled from 3D-printed parts and inexpensive Arduino components. His team released the open-source plans via a freely available publication in the journal Applied Physics Letters and also put together a video showing the step-by-step instructions for assembling a home-printed tractor beam.

You might need someone with a certain amount of maker experience to figure it all out. But think about it this way: you can make your own frickin' tractor beam! You'll be a hero at Comic-Con!

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There are other types of tractor beams in the real world that you may have heard about. One was created in water, and a laser-based beam built in a New York lab could actually be used in space one day.

In addition to automatically boosting your nerd cred, DIY tractor beams have real implications for advancing science and research.

"Recently there have been several papers about what happens if we levitate an embryo, how does it develop? Or what happens if we levitate bacteria?" Marzo said in a release. "For instance, they discovered salmonella is three times more [virulent] when it's levitated. Certain microorganisms react differently to microgravity."

Marzo and his colleague have come up with three different designs that can trap different object sizes and even liquids. One demonstration shows a fly being levitated and controlled by the sound waves.

For now the technology is unable to levitate objects larger than just a few millimeters across, but Marzo and his group are working to overcome this limitation and hope that unleashing it into the maker community will lead to a renaissance of sorts in early tractor beam technology.

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