Cat Cam

A little while ago, I heard a piece about The Secret Life of Cats on NPR. This dude put a camera/GPS logger on a number of cats and mapped what they do throughout the day. There info and a cool interactive map here

Intrigued by the idea of figuring out where our damn cat, Rubio, disappears to every time we let him out, I decided to look into building my own. Turns out GPS loggers are still quite expensive – plus, the form factor of everything I saw that had a camera and GPS logger was pretty big. I don’t want my cat feeling like he’s lugging a keg of beer around under his neck. There are, however, a ton of inexpensive, battery operated “spy cams” out there though. I figured just seeing where he goes would be interesting.

Getting on Amazon, I looked around for cheap spy cams with a decent battery life, a form-factor compatible with attaching to a collar and not weighing my cat down too much. I settled for this one, which is disguised as a car remote: – under 10 bucks, good ratings and Prime delivery in two days – perfect!

Car Remote Spy Cam

One issue is that the camera points out what would be the bottom in this picture (so you can leave the remote flat on a table or whatever and catch whoever doing whatever). Originally, I had planned to glue on a little fragment of mirror at a 90˚ angle so that the dongle could hang from the collar and still “see” forward. That kind of worked, but just for the hell of it, I thought I’d open it up and see if I could re-orient the camera to face ‘forward’ when it’s dangling. It turned out quite easy to do so…

Opened up spy cam

Inside you a small lithium-ion battery, the circuit board with attached SD card and USB connectors, and a camera and microphone on the right.

Conveniently, the camera is attached to the circuit board via a short piece of ribbon cable with a little slack in it. It’s also just kind of wedged in there, not mechanically attached to anything – so it was relatively easy to pull it up over the circuit board and face it “up” when lying flat. I stuck it to the circuit board with some double-sided sticky tape.


Next I just drilled a hole in the housing at the right location with my Exacto, then closed it back up.

I didn’t want the thing to swing around a lot as it dangled from the collar, so I made a sort of custom connector ring that hugs the collar tightly to prevent a ton of swinging motion.

Nest, I put it on record, put the collar on Rubio, and sent him on patrol.

The results of the first run are mixed. This tiny camera produces a really decent image and I’m actually pretty pleased with the “Rubio’s eye view” I got. The only problem is, it didn’t last very long – only about 8 minutes. Here’s a clip from towards the end, where he begins rolling in dirt. I’m not sure if he managed to press the off button while rolling, or getting rubbed against the ground made it turn off, or what. Possibly, I just needed to charge the battery longer. I’ll try another run next weekend. And report back with an update.

Oh yeah – also the image came out upside-down, so I rotated it 180˚, so you’ll notice the timestamp is upside-down.

UPDATE (09/01/13):

Well, Rubio’s second expedition was a better success. Although he didn’t stray too far, he the recorder did last a little over an hour. I think that probably that is about the duration of the battery life, but will know better after another trial or two. He didn’t ravel far from home on this expedition, there are a couple of amusing moments. An edited version is here:  Rubio hands out under our car looking for birds for a while and, after seeing a car go by, heads for the front porch. From there he heads towards the neighbor’s house and encounters our other cat, Asia. He gets pretty vocal at about 6:15 as he heads to the back garden to terrorize a squirrel.

UPDATE (09/08/13):

One last update…we finally captured something a little more interesting – although there is still just a lot of sitting around looking at things. In this clip, Rubio encounters our neighbors’ cat, Nola Bell: Belle

The camera captured 3 segments of about 10 minutes each and it doesn’t end with any ‘violent’ movement, so we definitely seem to be getting under an hour of record time. I may try finding a small battery with superior life..for example, I might try stacking some lithium cells which could last longer, although they are not rechargeable.

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