The Engineering Of An Ultrasonic Phased Array

Ultrasonic phased arrays are one of the wonders of the moment, with videos of small items being levitated by them shared far and wide. We’ve all seen them and some of us have even wondered about building them, but what about the practical considerations? Just how would you drive a large array of ultrasonic transducers, and how would you maintain a consistent phase relationship between their outputs? It’s a problem [Niklas Fauth] has been grappling with over the three iterations so far of his ultrasonic phased array project, and you can follow his progress on the latest build.

The arrays themselves are a 16 by 16 grid of cheap ultrasonic transducers on a PCB, fed by HV583 high-voltage shift registers. These chips have proven to be particularly problematic, their drivers having a relatively high internal resistance which leaves them prone to overheating.

An interesting solution to a problem comes from the transducers having a polarity, but because it doesn’t matter in their usual application, that polarity not being marked. He’s overcome this by using the STM32 he has managing power alongside his BeagleBone to listen through a sensor as the ‘Bone supplies each transducer in turn with a known phase. An internal map can then be created, such that the appropriate phase can be applied on a transducer-by-transducer basis.

It’s the fascination with the subject that we find appealing, this is version three and version two worked. Most of us would make one and call it a day. It’s something we’ve seen before from [Niklas], after all this is someone who plays with turbomolecular pumps for fun. Meanwhile if you would like to learn more about ultrasonic arrays and acoustic levitation, it was the subject of one of this year’s Hackaday Belgrade talks.

Using Acoustic Levitation For Applications Going Way Beyond Novelty

We’ve all seen acoustic levitation, it’s one of the scientific novelties of our age and a regular on the circuit of really impressive physical demonstrations of science to the public. The sight of arrays of ultrasonic speakers causing small objects and beads of liquid to float in mid-air without any suspension is magical, captivating people of all ages. Thus a lecture at Hackaday Belgrade on the subject from Asier Marzo, a research scientist with a speciality in the field of ultrasonics at the UK’s University of Bristol, was a particularly fascinating and informative one.

He started by explaining acoustic levitation as a concept, and its mechanism. As an idea it’s one with a long history, he tells us that hundreds of years ago people tried mass ranks of the loudest musical instruments at their disposal to move rocks, all to no avail. The array of musicians of yore lacked the ability to control their individual phase, and of course their combined output would have balked at a pea-sized piece of gravel, let alone a boulder.

Explaining the standing wave produced by an ultrasonic array.
Explaining the standing wave produced by an ultrasonic array.

The Power of Standing Waves

Given that we can now create standing waves between phased arrays of ultrasonic speakers, he explained the mechanism that allows the levitation. The standing wave creates patterns of high intensity and “quiet” low intensity sound, and the object nestles in one of these quiet areas. There is thus a size limit dictated by the wavelength of the sound in question, which for the ultrasound he’s using is in the order of a few millimetres.

Having explained how it all works, we were then taken into the fields in which it finds an application. This was particularly interesting, because it’s the side we never see in the for-the-kids demos where it’s all about “Look, we can make the water droplet float!”. The number of fields that can find a use for it was a surprise, and formed the next phase of the talk.

Real World Uses for Acoustic Levitation

The first example given was in the field of spectroscopy, when reflecting light from a droplet of liquid on a substrate a certain amount of the reflected light comes from the substrate. If the sample is levitated, all the reflection comes from it and nothing else. Microgravity experiments are another interesting application, where it is possible to replicate some of the work that has previously required  the environment of a space craft such as the International Space Station. This was a particularly unexpected twist.

Explaining the standing wave produced by an ultrasonic array.
Manipulating a solid particle with a wearable array.

The technique can be used for tiny particles in a liquid medium with a much higher frequency — a demonstration involves moving a single blood cell in a pattern. But Asier has more tricks up his sleeve. This technique can be used in human interactions with computers and with the real world. We saw a display in which the pixels were small plastic balls suspended in a grid, they could even be flipped in colour by being rotated under an electric field. A successive display used the balls not in a grid but as a point cloud in a graph, proving that rasters are not the only means of conveying information. Finally we saw the arrays applied to wearable devices, a handheld tractor beam, and a set of standing wave tweezers. He gave the example of picking up an SMD component, something that we can see would be invaluable.

Levitation is Within Our Grasp

The good news for us is that this is a piece of cutting-edge science that is accessible to us at our level too. He’s made a selection of designs available online through the Acoustic Levitator site. There is an ultrasonic array, an acoustic levitator, and an acoustic tractor beam, and the components are such run-of-the-mill parts as Arduinos and motor driver boards. Even schoolchildren building them from kits, with an experimenter using one for Schlieren photography of the acoustic field. Finally we’re shown Ultraino, an ambitious project providing software and driver hardware for large arrays in which every transducer is individually driven, before a tantalising look at future work in fluid ultrasonics and the promise of an ultrasonic audio speaker project.

Hackaday covers a huge array of projects and topics from all corners of our community. Each one is exciting in its own way, from a simple-looking Arduino project that encapsulates a cool hack to a multi-year labour of love. It’s not often though that we can say we’ve seen a genuinely cutting-edge piece of science, while simultaneously having it explained in terms we understand and being given an accessible version that we can experiment with ourselves. We are really looking forward to the projects that will come from this direction, as acoustic levitation becomes yet another known quantity in the hardware hacker’s armoury.

The Simplest Possible DIY Ultrasonic Levitator

We thought that making things levitate in mid-air by the power of sound was a little bit more like magic, or at least required fancy equipment. It turns out that you can do it yourself easily enough with parts that any decent hacker’s closet should have in abundance: a motor-driver IC, two ultrasonic distance pingers, and a microcontroller. This article¬†shows you how (translated here, scroll down).

But aside from a few clever tricks, there’s not that much to show. The two HC-SR04 ultrasonic distance sensors are standard fare, and are just being used as a cheap source of 40 kHz transducers. The circuit uses a microcontroller, but any source of 40 kHz square waves should suffice. Those of you who could do that with a 555 (or a Raspberry Pi), this one’s for you! A stepper motor driver bumps up the voltage applied to the transducers, but you could use plain-vanilla transistors as well.

It’s all the little details that count, however. You need to position the two ultrasonic drivers fairly precisely to create a standing wave, and while you can start at 8.25 mm and trial-and-error it, the article demonstrates using an oscilloscope to align the capsules by driving one and reading the signal out of the other and tweaking them until they’re in phase. Clever!

The author also takes the ultrasonic-transparent grille from one of the unused receivers and uses it as a spoon to help position the styrofoam bits in the sound waves. We always wondered how you’d do that!

It turns out that it’s easy to make a DIY ultrasonic levitation desk toy, and none of the parts are expensive or critical. The missing ingredient is just the gumption to try it, and now we have that, too.

As cool as they are, the HC-SR04 modules aren’t perfect for all distance sensing applications. Here’s everything you need to know about them, including hacks to make them work up-close. And since HC-SR04 sensors come cheapest in ten-packs, you’ll be wondering what you’re going to do with the other eight. That problem has apparently also been solved.