It's long been the stuff of sci-fi fantasy, but a team of researchers say they have built the world's first working sonic tractor beam.

Researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Sussex along with Ultrahaptics, a company that was started out of a project from the University of Bristol, claim to have built a sonic tractor beam that can move objects using sound waves.

The researchers published a report on their technique in the science journal "Nature Communications" on Tuesday.

Using a combination of 64 miniature loudspeakers to create a high-pitched and high-intensity sound waves, the device was able to levitate beads up to 4-millimetres in diameter.

"In our device we manipulate objects in mid-air and seemingly defy gravity. We can individually control dozens of loudspeakers to tell us an optimal solution to generate an acoustic hologram that can manipulate multiple objects in real-time without contact," University of Sussex professor of informatics Sriram Subramian said in a statement.

Unlike in previous attempts to create “tractor beams,” the object doesn't need to be completely surrounded by loudspeakers in order to manipulate it.

The group found that, by altering the sound wave output, the high-intensity sound waves create a force field that can keep a bead in place, move it around, and even combine multiple beads.

"We all know that sound waves can have a physical effect. But here we have managed to control the sound to a degree never previously achieved," said Bruce Drinkwater, a professor of ultrasonics with the University of Bristol.

Unlike the tractor beams audiences are accustomed to seeing dragging unsuspecting humans into orbiting UFOs, researchers envision this technology could one day have applications in medicine, for example, moving or manipulating everything from kidney stones to micro-surgical instruments without interfering with magnetic resonance imaging.

The next step is building a larger version that is capable of levitating a soccer ball from 10 metres away, and building a smaller version that can manipulate particles inside the human body.