School of Engineering


Love at First Sight” for Mechatronic Engineer

It was love at first sight!” Sounds like a line from a typical Hollywood romance. But on meeting Ingrid Botha, one realises there is nothing “typical” about her. The love she is describing is for soft robotics.

Botha obtained her BSc in Mechanical Engineering from UKZN in 2019 and during her undergraduate years realised that mechanical engineering is a vast field of study.

‘Once I completed my undergraduate degree, I was overwhelmed by the number of directions it could take me in. I realised that further experience in a specific field of study would cultivate greater confidence in myself as a professional. I thus chose to pursue a Master’s degree in Mechatronic Engineering,’ shared Botha.

Through her research, Botha was introduced to the field of soft robotics. The rest, as the adage goes, was history.

Her master’s research focused on an integrated low-cost reading device to provide quality education to the visually impaired. A portable device was required to transcribe printed text to braille in real-time. The design consisted of three major subsystems: the optical character recognition (OCR) software, which was required to transcribe the scanned text into measurable voltage outputs; the dielectric elastomer actuators (DEAs) that form the tactile braille display mounted on the user’s index finger; and the electronic control circuit that combined the OCR software and actuators into a single device.

At the outset Botha intended to integrate mechatronic engineering as a means to create a more accessible environment for visually impaired individuals in smart factories and Industry 4.0. However, soon after commencing her research, she realised that in order to improve employment statistics, the major challenge of accessible education had to be tackled first. Her research was fuelled by the alarming statistic that of the 22 schools dedicated to the blind and visually impaired in South Africa, 17 do not have access to braille textbooks for the CAPS syllabus. She thus focused on how mechatronic technology could be implemented to improve current employment statistics and visually impaired people’s quality of life.

The device was required to transcribe printed characters into a refreshable braille display in real-time, therefore allowing visually impaired individuals access to books, journals and newspapers without assistance or the need to wait for the production of a braille-embossed printed copy.

Botha’s passion for the subject fuelled her research and helped her mark out a clear career path that she would follow after graduation. ‘Completing my research and dissertation under COVID-19 conditions certainly introduced its own set of challenges,’ said Botha. ‘However, this unique situation also made me realise what can be accomplished using the decidedly under-utilised resources that the Internet and online networking can provide.’

Her decision to continue her postgraduate studies at UKZN was influenced by the supportive atmosphere cultivated by the lecturers and staff in the School of Engineering.

Botha is currently pursuing a PhD in Mechanical Engineering at UKZN focusing on 4D-printing.

She thanked her parents and sisters for their support and love, ‘even on those days when I wasn’t very lovable.’ She also expressed her gratitude to her supervisors Professor Glen Bright and Mr James Collins, for their unwavering support and motivation. ‘And thanks to Quiver, for teaching me courage,’ she said.

Words: Swastika Maney

Photograph: Supplied