Ms Ingrid Botha, a master’s candidate in Mechatronic Engineering at UKZN, is focusing her research on using integrated mechatronic systems to digitise written and printed text and transcribe the data into braille for the visually impaired.
Botha’s research investigates the viability of a wearable reading device that scans written text and transcribes it into braille, using optical character recognition and output data by way of haptic feedback to do this in real-time. This could open access to books, journals and newspapers for visually impaired people without reliance on assistance or waiting for the production of a copy of the text by braille embossing printers.
The project involves the use of novel dielectric elastomer actuators (DEA) to form the braille cell on the reader’s finger. Botha explained that this emerging technology in the field of soft robotics proposes a unique approach to actuation and sensor miniaturisation. The DEAs comprise an elastomer layer sandwiched between two flexible electrodes to which voltage is applied to create a force of attraction, resulting in a reduction of elastomer thickness that results in a proportional expansion of area.
Initially setting out to improve accessibility for blind and visually impaired people in the industrial workplace, Botha became aware of the challenges faced by this group of people in accessing quality education, with many schools for the blind in South Africa lacking resources such as textbooks published in braille or Perkins braille typewriters for students to use to take notes in class.
Understanding the correlation between access to quality education and employment, and given that 97% of blind or visually impaired individuals in South Africa are unemployed, Botha considered how she could use her studies to target the global problem of accessible braille transcribed textbooks for the visually impaired. She hopes this will improve the availability of information and the quality of education, and enable visually impaired or blind students to complete their schooling and access opportunities to contribute to society.
Botha, who completed her undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering at UKZN, was drawn to engineering by her drive to understand the workings behind scientific and engineering phenomena. Laboratory work and her final-year design project were highlights, giving her valuable practical experience and demonstrating the real-world results she could achieve through her education. After completing her master’s, Botha hopes to pursue a career in academia, saying she finds teaching a rewarding pursuit.
Outside of her studies, Botha is a passionate equestrian, horses having been her passion since childhood, and she spends her weekends coaching young riders at Redwoods Riding Centre. She describes the animals’ wisdom, gentle nature and courage as a source of inspiration for the person she has become.
Botha also gave credit to her parents for encouraging her to believe that nothing is out of reach if she strives for it, and for encouraging her to pursue a career in Engineering despite it being a male-dominated industry.
Words: Christine Cuénod