“Above all, I love cats. I admire their elegant body structures and agile movements,” Rongzhong Li tells me via email when asked why he chose a cat instead of something easier to recreate as a robot. Li is an assistant professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, and creator of open source robotic cat OpenCat.
After his robot was featured on IEEE Spectrum’s fantastic weekly roundup of robot videos, he tells me his email has been flooded with possibilities for the future development of his “sophisticated personal artwork,” as he labels it.
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OpenCat didn’t start out as a cat, Li writes. “My initial project was a pan/tilt camera for Raspberry Pi. With two infrared lights besides the camera, it looks like the face of a cat. Soon the rest of a cat‘s body popped up in my mind and started to patrol. I felt urged to pull it out to the reality,” he says, adding that he didn’t sleep well for a year – until he finally managed to make it walk.
There is another, even better, reason he chose to build a cat. “They look mysterious and philosophical, yet will do a lot of hilarious things. It’s like the status of today’s AI technology. I don’t have to ensure the robot humbly responds to human instructions every time. People may think, ‘Well… she hears me but just doesn’t care. Like my cat.'” So smart.
On his Hackster page, he writes that the project started back in the summer of 2016. Since then, the cat has gone through seven iterations, each one increasingly more complex. The latest one is the one in the video, dating from September 2017.
“The biggest challenge was to realize quadruped movement of cats, which is a long-standing challenge in the field of robotics. It requires seamless collaboration between software and high degree-of-freedom hardware. The research used to be dominated by big companies and laboratories. Very limited references and resources are available to the public,” he writes. And yet he managed to create a pretty advanced looking robot, in the spare time he has outside his duties at the university.
He currently has two working models. One smaller one, targeted at STEM education and the maker community, that runs on an Arduino module. And one larger model with a Raspberry Pi for AI-enhanced perception. Li is planning to target this one at the consumer market. A cat version of the AIBO, or as he writes, “a legged Android phone or Alexa that has an app store for third party extensions.”
At the moment he’s trying to form a company around his inventions. “At the current stage the challenge lies more in resources, especially because I’ve been financing this project as a part-time professor,” he writes. He’s struggling to find the time to do both as he’d like to. “I feel sorry that I have to keep the maker community waiting for the source model and codes,” Li adds.
At the moment Li and his partners are looking for funds to be able to evolve OpenCat into a collaborative project, and eventually a mass-produced product. They’re also looking for more enthusiasts to join them, “especially those who with expertise in funding open-sourced projects, such as Linux and Raspberry Pi.”
“We hope to create robots to make a better life for everyone,” he writes. Also, “I just want to fit this naughty buddy in a clean, smart, yet too quiet house.”
As for the real cat mercilessly attacks the poor robot in the video, he tells me it belongs to his roommate, but that she moved out last month. The interaction between the two was fun while it lasted though.
“She probably thinks the robot as a huge ‘bug’ in real world. At first she would run into it whenever hearing its squeak. She would capture, kick, and bite the robot. She would walk away as soon as it stops moving. Now she’s getting used to it and most of the time, she just stares at it with mercy.”