Researchers create tractor beam that moves objects floating in water

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By controlling the shape of waves produced by a cylindrical wave-generator, researchers at the Australian National University have developed a tractor beam that can move objects on the surface of water in any direction. This technology can lead to a number of uses, such as ocean rescue missions that require the movement of disabled ships toward rescue craft.

“We have figured out a way of creating waves that can force a floating object to move against the direction of the wave,” says project lead Dr. Horst Punzmann.

The process involves applying a cylinder that can be moved up-and-down against the surface of water at designated speeds to create “waves of precise heights at a rate of between 10 and 100 every second.” Scientists then use small particles to track the currents created by the cylinder, helping them pinpoint the particular size and frequency of the waves needed to adjust the movement of the cylinder in order to move objects either toward or away from a particular area. This can also be used to set objects floating in water in a stationary holding pattern.

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Although the extent of the demonstration involves manipulating a ping pong ball across the surface of a controlled water environment, Prof Michael Shats envisions even grander capabilities that involves the manipulation of much larger bodies of water: “We can engineer surface flows of practically any shape. These could be vortices, these could be outward and inward jets – it’s a variety of different flow configurations.”

When perfected and scaled to commercial use, this technology could be very useful in rescuing vessels dead in the water or preventing ships from bumping into infrastructure. Other uses include containing oil spills, reducing cleanup costs and minimizing environmental harm. It is also hoped that further study will help shed light on rip currents which accounts for the majority of water rescues worldwide.

About Author

Brandon Bailey is a late bloomer, specifically a Saussurea Obvallata. Someday you may see him at a local botanical display, or perhaps just withering on the vine. Brandon has had a lifelong fascination with science, history, travel, and the lost arts. He can be found writing in East Los Angeles, California, or exploring the city’s many hidden treasures. Brandon is also a self-taught pianist and a connoisseur of music in all its forms.

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