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Integrated low-cost reading device targeting the accessibility to quality education for the visually impaired.

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The movement of society into the Fourth Industrial Revolution introduces a fundamental shift in how Mechatronic devices are implemented in daily life and the workplace. Terms such as ‘efficiency’ and ‘competitive advantage’ bolster the drive to develop technology that sets one company, business or manufacturer apart from the rest. However, is there a possibility that the same technology can be used to unify society by providing equal opportunity within the workplace, academia, and everyday life? This research addresses the position of the South African visually impaired community within Industry 4.0 and how Mechatronic technology can be used to improve current employment statistics and quality of life. The purpose of the research project was to assess the financial and operational viability of a portable text to braille transcription device with focus on the implementation of novel small-scale Dielectric Elastomer Actuators (DEAs). The device was required to transcribe printed characters into braille in real-time. This allowed 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. In addition, the research included an assessment of the current employment and educational circumstances of the blind and visually impaired community of South Africa as well as an investigation of the ideal approach to address multiple key factors using a single device. The design of the selected device was comprised of three major subsystems; the optical character recognition hardware, the software and electronics required to transcribe the characters into a series of voltage outputs and the actuation system of the tactile display. The synthesis and operating conditions of the dielectric elastomer actuators were experimentally assessed. The tactile display was required to be low cost, small-scale, portable, and robust to present a sustainable solution to the challenges presented by the lack of accessible reading material and high cost of commercially available options. Scaled models of the DEA were synthesised. The subsequent experiments included the comparison of elastomer materials, electrode materials, the effect of pre-strain on DEA performance, the effect of different application methods of carbon electrodes and the performance of inflated DEA membranes. The electronic subsystem was simulated to investigate the reaction time of the device. Design challenges included the requirement of a high voltage power supply to actuate the DEA, the insulation of the synthesised membranes, electrical protection of the micro-controller and the incorporation of optical character recognition programmes. This research aimed to assist in the development of actuators with greater portability and scope for miniaturisation than commercially available pneumatic or piezoelectric alternatives while addressing the challenges faced by the visually impaired community of South Africa.


Masters Degree. University of KwaZulu- Natal, Durban.