...until now, no one thought to use [photon] pressure in an analogue of an aerofoil, said Grover Swarzlander of the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).
"Here at RIT we have a group that... do ray tracing through objects to render computer graphics stuff all the time," he told BBC News.
"So I said let's just turn this problem onto one of these ray-tracing programs and see what happens."
The team ran computer simulations based on a semi-cylindrical glass rod to see what would happen when a beam of unfocused light was shone on it.
They discovered not only that the rods experienced "lift", but that there were several angles that the rod tended to align itself to.
"The surprising thing from our model shows it has different positions of rotational equilibrium, so it will roll to a given position, stay there, and continue to undergo lift," Dr Swarzlander said.
The team went on to design tiny glass rods, less than a hair's breadth across, to prove the principle.
The rods were floated in water, through which a laser was shone. They behaved just as the simulations had predicted.
Steerable light sails equals free trips to the planets and the outer system for robots. Really BIG ones, if we want.
The Steerable Phantom.