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Did Australian Scientists Just Build A Real-Life Tractor Beam?

Scifi tech is being built in a bathtub

Michael Cruickshank
Did Australian Scientists Just Build A Real-Life Tractor Beam?© 2018 ANU

Tractor beams - beams of an unknown force which can attract any object - are a staple of sci-fi films; from classics such as Star Wars to contemporary films like District 9. But is such a device really possible to build with todays limited technology?

"No one could have guessed this result."

A group of scientists at the Australian National University (ANU) think so, building a tractor beam which can successfully attract objects across the surface of water. Through using simple wave generators, they were able to manipulate surface currents in such a way that enables them to precisely control the position of a floating object.

In a press release Dr Horst Punzmann, from the Research School of Physics and Engineering, who led the project explains: “We have figured out a way of creating waves that can force a floating object to move against the direction of the wave [...] No one could have guessed this result,”

They believe the technology could be used to make the cleanup of oil spills and other sea-surface rubbish much simpler than current techniques allow. In addition, the ‘tractor beam’ could be used to easily manipulate and propel small boats on the ocean’s surface. Furthermore, the wave information that is used in the beam could also be used to help explain and understand the deadly riptides that can occur on beaches.

While standard waves of light and sound are well understood by scientists, this is not the case for surface waves in water. As yet there is no mathematical theory which can explain the movements occurring in these experiments, Dr Punzmann said. “It’s one of the great unresolved problems, yet anyone in the bathtub can reproduce it. We were very surprised no one had described it before.”


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