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Surprising Science

Real-Life ‘Star Trek’ Tractor Beams Will Change How We Practice Medicine

Star Trek’s ideal view of medicine is closer than we think.

Imagine going into the doctor and having a blood clot or cell inside your body moved or manipulated without any incisions. The future may be closer than you think.

The non-invasive procedures of the Star Trek universe — a quick scan and a hypo-spray — is an optimistic wish for the future of medicine. The researchers of today from several universities have developed an acoustic tractor beam that could further minimize the way doctors practice surgery.

It’s possible the surgical practices of today will be looked at by future generations as medieval. I can’t help but think of Star Trek‘s doctor, Leonard “Bones” McCoy, of the starship Enterprise in the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, as he walks through a 20th Century hospital disgusted that humanity ever practiced such brutality.

“Acoustic structures shaped as tweezers, twisters, or bottles emerge as the optimum mechanisms for tractor beams or containerless transportation,” the researchers wrote in their paper, which was published in Nature. “Single-beam levitation could manipulate particles inside our body for applications in targeted drug delivery or acoustically controlled micro-machines that do not interfere with magnetic resonance imaging.”

The researchers were able to accomplish this feat by building a grid comprising 64 loud speakers. The sound they emit is beyond human hearing, and the output can be adjusted to change the type of field created by the sound to hold the object, contain it, or pull it.

In the video below, the researchers demonstrate how objects can be moved around by an invisible hand that holds the object between two fields, like the object is being pinched and moved. In another, researchers showed it could pull an object one way using a twister-like cyclone, much like a tractor beam.

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“We have in mind cells and drug-holding micro-capsules,” professor Bruce Drinkwater stated in an email to Discovery. “If we could manipulate these within the body, e.g., to deliver drugs to tumors, this would be hugely important.”

Past tractor beams have demonstrated the possibility of using light to push and pull objects. Bill Nye (the science guy) explains that’s because “light, even though it has no mass, has a tiny, tiny bit of momentum. Just while you’re sitting there in a room with the lights on and when you’re out in the sun, there’s just a tiny, tiny push on you because it’s pure energy.”

For those dreaming of the tractor beams of Star Trek, capturing and moving objects in space, this technology is Earth-bound. However, Arx Pax, the company responsible for the Hendo Hoverboard, is partnering with NASA to create a space-ready tractor beam to help realign satellites.


Natalie has been writing professionally for about 6 years. After graduating from Ithaca College with a degree in Feature Writing, she snagged a job at where she had the opportunity to review all the latest consumer gadgets. Since then she has become a writer for hire, freelancing for various websites. In her spare time, you may find her riding her motorcycle, reading YA novels, hiking, or playing video games. Follow her on Twitter: @nat_schumaker

Photo Credit: DOMINIQUE FAGET / Getty Staff


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