If you have a cat that goes outside, there’s a good chance that dead creatures turn up on your doorstep sometimes. This might range from the occasional delivery to something we expect to get every morning. Seeking possible solutions, researchers have created Flappie – a cat flat that combines artificial intelligence and a prey detection system to reduce the negative impact our furry friends have on the environment.
Oliver and Denis Widler were used to getting unwanted “gifts” from their cats Dixie and Rocky at their family home in Switzerland. Domestic cats are skilled predators, and those living near natural areas are likely to prey on local birds, small mammals, and reptiles. In fact, domestic cats are a recognized threat to global biodiversity.
However, cats’ approach to hunting usually follows a pretty standard set of behaviors when looking for prey.
Fraternal twins, Oliver and Denis come up with a method that could reduce this problem. They call it Flappie.
Flappie is a smart cat flap that uses a system with a motion detector, an infrared camera, and infrared lighting for night vision. An algorithm inspects a cat’s face to determine whether it’s carrying prey. If that’s the case, Flappie then triggers a locking mechanism.
To gain entry to the house, cats will have to learn to drop their prey outside, the two researchers explained. Only when that happens Flappie will unlock the flap. Flappie can also verify that only cats that belong to your household are allowed to go inside by incorporating a microchip technology that links with a chip added to a specific cat. This would dissuade cats from bringing in their prey, and potentially even from hunting.
“Contrary to popular belief, we found that cats are remarkably intelligent,” Oliver Widler said in a statement. “Dixie, Rocky, and our other test cats learned to drop their prey fairly quickly when they wanted to come inside the house.”
A team effort
Oliver Widler demonstrated his creativity at a young age when he devised a doorbell system for his bedroom to alert him of unwanted intrusions by his parents. He has since graduated from ETH Zurich with a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, incorporating diverse knowledge that contributed to Flappie’s design and algorithm.
He took courses in electrical engineering, computer vision, machine learning, and data science, also creating computer drawings and developing prototypes of his ideas with 3D printing. But while his education was relevant to Flappie, he attributes the idea to his mother, the primary person responsible for cleaning up after the family cats.
Oliver worked with his brother Dennis, an innovator and UZH alumnus, who brought his business expertise to the Flappie enterprise. He recently completed his master’s thesis in Business Innovation at the University of St. Gallen. Dennis said everything he learned in his studies applies to the business model that they built around Flappie.
The two brothers successfully launched their start-up, Flappie Technologies, just one year after coming up with the idea. However, the journey was far from easy. highlighted the obstacles that inventors usually encounter, particularly during product development, where supply chain delays can provide valuable and unanticipated learning experiences.
Despite the challenges, Flappie is set to have a positive impact on the bond between families and their cats, the researchers said. The tech duo has also launched an app that enables cat owners to integrate their pets into their smart home systems. The app provides observations of their cats’ behavior and insight into their ability to adapt. Whether or not Flappie will become commonplace, however, remains to be seen.