Robotic mouse could help solve cat obesity problem

4/21/2014 2:03:40 PM

Mike Koon, Engineering Communications Office


An estimated 58 percent of those domestic cats are overweight, which is just shy of the national average for humans. A large contributing factor to these felines’ weight problems is that their owners simply don’t have the recommended 20 minutes per day to commit to playing with them

Dave Cohen, a University of Illinois PhD student in the department of electrical and computer engineering (ECE), is leading a group that is working on a potential solution to the problem. Under the auspices of a start-up called Petronics, the group has built the initial prototype for Mousr, a robotic “pet for your cat” that can sense the movements of your cat and react the way a real mouse would. The result could be endless amounts of playtime for the cat.

“This has the potential to autonomously keep cats active for the recommended time in instances where the owners can’t take time out of their schedule,” Cohen said.

Mousr is fit with a variety of directional motion sensors. If the cat comes up to it, it will trigger the motion sensor and cause it to “run away.” It is even sophisticated enough to know the difference between running, stalking and pouncing.

The device uses an infrared (IR) LED in conjunction with a sensor that measures the overall level of ambient IR light. When an object is close to the device, light from the LED is reflected back and detected by the ambient light sensor.

While the development of Mousr is just two months in the making, it’s genesis came somewhat by accident two years ago. Cohen was working on a proof-of-concept sensor management system where the goal was to keep the power consumption of a device low. The idea was to create a device that could intelligently utilize coarse, low-power motion sensor data in order to dictate when to collect more informative, power-hungry camera data. In this way, the camera is only run when it is needed most. The system is akin to those used in wildlife monitoring where battery-powered devices must be able to run for months at a time.

Cohen decided to use the device in his house to monitor his cat while he was gone. After some positive results, he ran the concept by Lauren Morenz, the local owner of Fetch Pet Care, which provides house care for pet owners while they are on vacation. She suggested that there would be a market for devices that could monitor their pets while on vacation. 

“I decided to explore other motion sensor ideas in the pet space and eventually came up with Mousr,” Cohen said. “I discovered that there is nothing else like it in the marketplace.”

Cohen has developed an engineering team of fellow students Michael Friedman (ECE), David Jun (ECE) and James Pikul (Mechanical Science and Engineering) to go along with business consultants Tim Skov (owner of Wingin’ Out in Champaign), Dan Widing (OSO Technologies) and Morenz.

“Dan encouraged me the most to pursue Mousr,” Cohen said of Widing, who has experience with successful start-ups. “He says people have great ideas all the time, however the effort to go from idea to execution is so great that most people stop dead in their tracks. His message was any idea you’re truly passionate about is worth pursuing.”

While the proof-of-concept has been successful, the next step is creating a prototype that looks like a real product and can be manufactured for a reasonable cost. He is applying for funding through the Cozad Innovation Prize and hopes to be accepted into HAXLR8R, a program based in China that helps start-up hardware companies move forward.

“Many investors tend to shy away from hardware companies in favor of software-based start-ups because of the complexities involved in the logistics of the supply chain, manufacturing, packaging and distribution,” Cohen noted. “But with advancements in 3D printing, rapid prototyping, and emerging programs like HAXLR8R, the barriers to entry for hardware start-ups are rapidly diminishing.”

Cohen believes there are few environments riper for start-ups than Champaign-Urbana and the University of Illinois.

“With Research Park, the Technology Entrepreneur Center (TEC) and Office of Technology Management (OTM) in place, the University of Illinois has provided us with the infrastructure to take our idea and make it a reality.”

They don’t know it yet, but cats around the globe are counting on it coming to fruition.