Robot-Assisted Acoustic Technology: Broad-Use Engineering for the Future

July 1, 2024

Acoustic technology, in some forms, has been around for centuries. It is used in designing and improving musical instruments for optimal sound production, as well as limiting unwanted or harmful mechanical noise in the world around us. With new technological breakthroughs, this area of study is gaining momentum and driving innovation in a number of areas – especially healthcare and medicine. A new tool developed by a research team at Virginia Tech demonstrates how acoustic technology is leading to breakthroughs in biotechnology uses, creating a foundation for new discoveries across all industries. 

Understanding Acoustic Technology 

Acoustic technology involves creating, manipulating, and transmitting sound waves, often through musical instruments, speakers, and communication devices. It is built on the science of acoustics, which focuses on understanding how sound travels through air, water, and other media. 

Acoustic technology has prominent uses in longstanding and common technologies like sonar for deep water exploration and forensics, and ultrasounds for internal body imaging. More recent uses have emerged in speech recognition and monitoring vibrations in physical structures, as well as biotechnology and medical advancements. 

Robot-Assisted Acoustic Tweezers 

A team of researchers at Virginia Tech recently developed a pair of “invisible tweezers,” which uses acoustic waves to manipulate tiny particles within the human body. This device works by penetrating bone and tissue with acoustic waves to capture micro- to millimeter-sized targets like cells and drug molecules without the need to make surgical incisions. Tiny acoustic energy emitters surround and trap particles, allowing the particle to be moved and rotated by essentially acting like tiny tweezers. Mounting the emitter to a robotic platform enables the acoustic beam to be controlled with incredible precision. This is much more precise and less damaging to the body than the use of acoustics to break up kidney stones, known as extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL). 

In today’s medical arena, nearly 20% of surgeries are assisted or fully performed by robots, providing an incredible opportunity for these invisible tweezers—and acoustic technology as a whole—to perform less invasive surgeries that limit patient discomfort, incur shorter hospital stays, and speed up recoveries.  

Acoustic Engineering for the Future 

The continued exploration of this engineering technology is driving innovation in a variety of industries. Similar to medicine, it’s pushing new frontiers in biology and chemistry, where acoustic tweezers are handling delicate biological samples like embryos or arranging nanoparticles for biomanufacturing. 

Acoustic waves can enhance drug penetration through tissues to improve targeted drug delivery and sort and manipulate cells for research and medical purposes. Researchers are exploring how acoustic fields may be able to stimulate tissue repair and regeneration, be used in non-invasive procedures to treat neurological disorders, and support wearable devices that could monitor health metrics

In additive manufacturing and 3-D printing of materials, acoustic technology can be used to identify anomalies like cracks and voids in a structural design, ensuring quality control through more precise monitoring and allowing for the building of more intricate structures. Combining acoustics with 3D printing can also help fabricate human tissues and organs. And the technology is being explored to improve sound quality performance venues by adapting their acoustics to individual listeners, manufacturing car tires that minimize vibrations from the road, creating immersive experiences for gaming and virtual reality applications, and developing visual representations of sound patterns that can help with noise pollution and architecture.  

As researchers work further in acoustic engineering and technology, new innovations and use cases will continue to emerge as the applications of this specialty are seemingly endless across many fields of study. 

Engineering and Technology Education at Capitol Tech 

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