Twin brothers use AI to herd cats

Finally, a cat flap that prevents feline friends from bringing their prey indoors. Powered by artificial intelligence and backed by Swiss know-how and talent ETH Zurich start-up, Flappie Technologies is poised to become the cat’s meow.
Flappie makes your cat think twice about bringing home a "gift". (Photograph: Adobe Stock)

Brief summary of key points

  • Artificial intelligence prevents domestic cats from going indoors with their prey.
  • Twin brothers combine their skills in engineering and business develop an AI-powered cat flap.
  • Student Project House fosters opportunities to realize ideas through a supportive network and coaching.

Look at what the cats’ dragged in! After years of cleaning up the horrific remains of their cats, Dixie and Rocky’s, generous “gifts”, the Widler family is determined to “be the change” they want to see in their pets. Fraternal twins, Oliver and Denis Widler have leveraged their respective education specialities to create Flappie – a state-of-the-art cat flap powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI). The team aims to be the first AI powered cat flap to hit the market.

(Video: ETH Zurich / Nicole Davidson)

Time to let the “cat out of the bag”

Flappie is no ordinary cat door. It is potentially the first of its kind to combine artificial intelligence with an integrated prey detection system. The smart cat flap uses a sophisticated system entailing a motion detector, an infrared camera, and infrared lighting that allows for night-vision capability. A custom algorithm automatically inspects a cat’s face – in much the same way that facial recognition software operates - to determine whether, or not, the cat is carrying a payload of prey – a mouse, bird, or even a snake. If prey is detected (alive or dead) Flappie triggers a locking mechanism preventing the cat from entering the home. To gain entry, cats must first learn to drop their “gift” outside. Only then does Flappie unlock the flap. In an optional next step, Flappie’s programmed microchip technology verifies cats with a chip allowing only those that belong to your household inside.

“Contrary to popular belief, we found that cats are remarkably intelligent,” says Oliver Widler. “Dixie, Rocky, and our other test cats learned to drop their prey fairly quickly when they wanted to come inside the house.”

In addition to the solving a long-standing social rift between cats and their owners, the Flappie Tech duo will incorporate an app into the “Flappieverse”. The app enables cat owners to integrate their pet into their smart home systems. It also provides them with unique, and often humorous, observations into their cats’ behaviour, as well as insight into their ability to adapt.

Denis Widler commented, “The Flappie universe really gives you a deeper connection to your pet…and, for the data driven owner, we are even incorporating cat stats.”

One twin an inventor, the other an innovator

Always an inventor, when Oliver Widler was 10 years old he built and installed a doorbell to his bedroom to alert him of parental intruders. He recently graduated from ETH Zurich with a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering with a focus on robotics. The skills he deployed in creating Flappie also draw upon his undergraduate coursework at ETH in consumer-focused product development. Within the context of the courses, he had the freedom to create computer drawings and develop prototypes of his ideas using 3D print technologies. In his graduate work, Oliver Widler expanded his research and development skillset with courses in electrical engineering, computer vision, machine learning, and data science – all of which play a role in the design and algorithm of Flappie. While his educational background has certainly been an influence, he credits his mother (likely the primary member of the family’s cat clean-up crew) for the initial idea.

Denis Widler, an innovator and alumnus of University of Zurich (UZH) provides the business brain for the Flappie operation. He recently submitted his thesis for his master’s degree in Business Innovation conducted at University of St. Gallen (HSG). Denis Widler says that everything he has learned in his studies applies to the business model and community that they are building around Flappie – which he anticipates will become much more to the pet industry than a sophisticated cat flap.

Where inventions come to life

Denis Widler attributes part of Flappie’s success the value offered by ETH Zurich’s Student Project House (SPH) where the Widlers developed Flappie saying, “It’s amazing! It offers such a wonderful opportunity to present your ideas and address critical questions, but within the context of an inspiring, supportive network. We also received valuable coaching along the way.”

At the SPH students have access to not only tools and machines - including several 3D printers, but also to coaching and networking with experienced experts. It was this creative environment that enabled the Widler brothers to grow their project from a budding idea into their first prototype.  

In just over a year, Oliver and Denis Widler were able to transition from the ideation phase to the official launch of their start-up, Flappie Technologies, but it was not an easy path. Oliver Widler described the setbacks inventors face, especially in the product development phase where delays along the supply chain can present unanticipated learning opportunities. Despite the challenges, one thing is clear: Flappie will positively influence the relationship between families and their feline friends making life a bit more "purrrfect."