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Cartoon Cat Internet-Enabled Cat Feeder - Mark 2
(The World's First (and Last?!) IPv6 Cat Feeder!)

Cartoon Cat
Mac Life Magazine Ranked #2 in in Mac|Life Magazine's Top Ten Wonders of the Home Automation World ! (Mar '10, pp 30-31)
Web Interface Cat Feeder
 
(Click photos to see larger versions. Full-size originals available on request)
Cat Feeder Mark 2 (Rear)
Android App Circuit Board
Elmo Sleeping Frankie Sleeping Cat Feeder Mark 2 Cat Feeder (Elmo Eating) Frankie & Elmo...Sleeping (As usual!) Elmo Waiting For Food (Again as usual!)

Background

Our two cats, Frankie and Elmo, are no strangers to technology; they've even got their own keyless-entry system in the form of a RFID 'microchip' catflap. So, when it came to solving the problem of how to feed them if arriving back late from the office, or whilst we're away for short periods (e.g. overnight or perhaps weekends) without necessarilly having to bother the neighbours I was sure there'd be something out there to do the job.

Surprisingly; there wasn't. Or at least there was nothing that satisfied what I considered to be several important, if not essential, requirements. These included i) being suitable for two cats i.e. not forcing them to use the same bowl (or having the potential expense of buying two of the same product), ii) delivering food at the right time and quantity (this includes stopping them from helping themselves!), iii) being suitable for two meals a day for perhaps 2/3 days at a time, and iv) providing some form of feedback loop (ideally remotely-accessible video) as the last thing I wanted to come back to is two starving cats because something has failed - we want to know immediately if something's gone wrong so we can at least then get one of the neighbours to call round!


Nearly all the products on the market seemed to receive mixed reviews - most didn't seem particularly cat-proof (this video shows the persistance of one cat succeeding in helping himself by advancing the timer on an analogue-clock based feeder!), and others were limited in how much food (and time) they could cater for. The closest product to seemingly tick all the boxes was something like the Smarthome Remote Pet Feeder which, at $298 (I could only find it in the US), was also a tad pricey!

So, in November 2009 I set about designing and building my own. I wanted to keep costs down without sacrificing performance or flexibility, ideally by using whatever I had already had to hand. Of course it had to work well, perfectly in fact, and be ultra-reliable too - at the end of the day it was important to me not to lose sight of the fact that we're talking about animal welfare here so it was far more than just a 'geeky' hacking project.

There was no real requirement for controlling the provision of water as both our cats rarely, if ever, drink from their bowl preferring instead to sort themselves out from the watering cans in the garden, puddles etc. We do leave a bowl out for good measure and have noticed that occasionally they will drink from it if it is left to stand for a couple of days. This seems to be fairly common - perhaps due to the chlorine (and evaporation thereof) in the tap water. Similarly, there was no concern for litter trays either - our cats are of the, how should I put it, "al fresco" persuasion - I do hope the neighbours aren't reading this as they probably don't need reminding that cats don't tend to use their own back garden either! ;-)

Moving swiftly on; here's a video of how it all turned out...


(Click here if the video doesn't appear above)

The mechanics of the design are best covered by breaking it down into its constituent parts, i.e. food delivery, network interfacing/connectivity, and control software...

Food Delivery

This bit was arguably the hardest, or at least the most difficult to turn theory in practice! I went through loads of ideas which seemed good on paper but really were asking for trouble in the real world. The biggest problem was the mechanical handling of the (thankfully dry!) food as Sod's Law mandates that any form of metered-delivery will provide plenty of opportunities for food to get caught and jam. Rather than completely reinvent the wheel I settled on making use of a simple cereal dispenser - this was designed to reliably deliver dry foods at the turn of a wheel and made allowances for food getting caught by incorporating flexible rubber vanes on the delivery 'paddle'. It was also easy to fill and, if more capacity was required, could easily be extended by adding some form of pipe/tube to the top. It seemed to do a fairly good job of keeping the food fresh too thanks to its lid and reasonably-sealed flapper arrangement (having six vanes means at least two are always closing off the tube).

With the main body of the dispenser mounted on a board all I had to do was attach a motor and I'd be away...

Flapper (Pic 2)
Flapper - Left View
Dispenser
Dispenser
Flapper (Pic 1)
Flapper - Right View

Of course, this seemingly innocuous step threw up quite a significant hurdle... The torque required to turn the paddle could get quite high, particularly when food starts to get caught which it invariably does. I didn't measure it but it was certainly a fair old force required - I think under 'normal' arrangements with human hands you might back-off if resistance was felt and turn it the other way. For semi-automated motor operation I wanted to avoid the complication of fancy load detection and backoff mechanisms so opted instead for good old-fashioned brute force. This required gearing, which in turn would also help avoid inadvertently making some form of catfood Gatling gun! I found a high torque gearbox motor which runs at a nice sedate 4 RPM. Even better, in exchange for this leisurely pace it gives a maximum (stall) torque of 25kg·cm - plenty of grunt for even the most awkard of cat food pellets! The motor was mounted using a Cisco rackmount bracket.

No sooner was that hurdle out of the way the next was rapidly approaching... connecting the motor and its 'I'm not stopping for anything' torque to the food dispenser in a secure fashion. The dispenser came with a 3/10ths-of-an-inch diameter D-shaped shaft (with a handwheel onit) which, whilst obviously suitable for the flapper end, was proving difficult to attach to the 6mm D-shaped shaft (and corresponding coupling) of the motor. The problem was not so much the size differential but that the coupling had to somehow not make mincemeat of the plastic at the required levels of torque. Having filed down the shaft to suit the coupling and performing a few trial runs the grub screw in the coupling failed to securely hold the plastic shaft in place. It just wasn't going to last for any reasonable length of time.

The shaft had to go, or rather be replaced with something made out of metal. The form and shape of the shaft was such that it was anything but an off-the-shelf item and so somebody suggested making a plea for help in the uk.rec.models.engineering Usenet group. A couple of kind souls - Dave Sanderson and Richard Edwards - both offered to make what I needed for me; Dave pulled the short straw and took on the task of turning and milling a shaft out of an old printer bar. Despite my best attempts at confusing the requirement with an initially-nonsensical engineering drawing (hey, I was using Word - it was never going to look spot on even if the figures were!) he came up trumps and eliminated what was threatening to become the Achilles' Heel of the whole project.

Shaft (Pic 2)
Shaft - Top View
Shaft (drawing)
Shaft Drawing
Shaft (Pic 1)
Shaft - Bottom View

The final stage of food delivery was a splitter i.e. something to split a single source of food into two bowls, ideally in roughly equal portions! Here I used some 0.5mm aluminium sheet which I knew would come in handy one day (admittedly I don't know if it has fully justified storing a dozen 4'x3' sheets of it in the loft for seven years though!). It was fabricated using a single continuous piece - for no other reason than to maintain mechanical sturdiness that could be lost through using fixings. That, and I wanted to give Metallic Origami a try...

Splitter (Pic 1)
Splitter - Side View
Splitter (Pic 2)
Splitter - Top View
Splitter (In Situ)
Splitter - In Situ

With the physical food delivery mechanism sorted I now needed a method to provide remote control...

Network Interfacing/Connectivity (Mark 1 Version - Cisco C1924)
(there is now a Mark 2 - see next section)

In order to allow user-driven operation rather than leaving things to a timer (which could lead to all sorts of problems) I opted to connect the feeder to my house network. I considered using a locally-sited PC but dropped this idea because I didn't really want a dedicated PC sat alongside it... particularly in the kitchen. Okay, I admit, it wouldn't have bothered me all that much... but my girlfriend on the other hand...

I also opted not to go for connectivity/control based around something like the Arduino platform which seems to be the pervasive convention for this sort of project. There's nothing wrong with using one, but it went against my design principle of minimising costs and, ideally, making use of what I already had.

Before this cat feeder project came charging in I was in the final stages of studying for Cisco's CCNA networking qualification (Edit 11 Feb 2010: Not any more - I'm now qualified! :-) ) and whilst sat there wondering why mutli-channel Ethernet relays cost so much (e.g. this one for £249) it dawned on me that I had all this highly-configurable Cisco kit sat around and if I could tap in to some of the port status LEDs, which I could turn on and off, then I'd have myself a multi-port network-enabled relay interface for no cost at all! (Even buying in, a 1900-series switch often goes for less than £15 on eBay). Better still, the configuration of such a device meant that I would feel less guilty about skipping my studies (admittedly that's stretching things a bit!) and provides the opportunity for a whole load of puns relating to the use of CatOS...

I pulled the cover off an old Cisco C1924 Catalyst switch (Enterprise edition hence allows command-line access) and poked around with a multimeter (don't try this at home if you don't know what you're doing!). I found that the LEDs were driven using HC595A shift registers with TTL (5v) outputs. These made ideal points from which to piggyback onto in order to provide the necessary signalling feeds to an external motor control board (details later). I could also take a +12v (1A) power feed from the built-in PSU.

HC595A Serial Register
HC595A Shift Registers
Port e0/20
LED Driver Output (Port 20 in this case)
12v Power Feed
Power Sourced from Main Power Block
Ground Point
Ground Obtained from Chassis Screw
Cisco Innards
Completed Wiring
Terminal Block
Terminal Block for External Connections
Loopback Adapters
RJ45 Loopback Adapters
Port Status LEDs with Loopback Adapters Inserted
  Port Status LEDs

A slight unexpected gotcha (the CCNA syllabus unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, doesn't cover modifying switches to control motors...) was that you cannot illuminate a port status LED without something plugged into it, not on demand at least. However, I then discovered the concept of RJ45 loopback cables (basically an RJ45 plug wired such that its output goes into its input, and vice versa) so I made up a few plugs and was back on the road - these trick the port into thinking something is connected to the other end (it doesn't realise it is conversing with itself) and so you are then able to have full control over the state of the port, and hence its LED, without it stubbornly remaining in an down/error-disabled state.

I tapped into three port LEDs - ports 20 and 21 to trigger forward and reverse motor operation respectively, and port 22 to allow for an 'emergency cutout' function such that I could electrically isolate the motor should anything go wrong.

The switch required only a very basic configuration (available here) with the three 'control ports' set to shutdown mode and remote access enabled to allow the port states (and LEDs) to be toggled. Obviously the novelty of manually logging in soon wears off and so I wrote a shell script (available here) which uses the 'Expect' tool - an excellent way of automating interactive applications such as Telnet, SSH, etc. The script simply runs through a series a pre-determined commands based on what it expects to see and hence can automatically log in, enter configuration mode, toggle the port states and log out again.

As the title of this section mentioned, this was the Mark 1 method of providing network access to the feeder. Before I move on to the rest of the hardware (and software) it is worth going through some enhancements I made in this area which formed the 'new and improved' Mark 2...

Network Interfacing/Connectivity (Mark 2 Version - Cisco-Linksys WRT54GL)

The Cisco switch method of providing network access worked well - very well in fact. However, that didn't mean it couldn't be improved upon... In particular, there were a number of areas I wanted to focus on:
Enter... the Linksys WRT54GL Router. This device, for those that don't know, has near-legendary status in some circles (okay, that's pushing it but it is pretty good) as not only does it function well out-of-the-box but, being based on Linux firmware its source code has been made available to anyone that wants it (here's the lowdown on how this came to be). So what? Well, being open source means that others can more easily write complete replacements for the stock firmware and, in doing so, provide additional functionality to those that want to get more out of the device, and perhaps use it for purposes it was not originally designed for...

It fitted the bill perfectly and directly addressed the aforementioned issues. Specifically, it was small (it can therefore be easily mounted on the rear of the feeder), completely silent (by virtue of it being fanless), readily available (you can still buy them new, but are also available cheaply on eBay) and safer to poke around in given there are only low voltages inside the device.

There were other benefits too including wireless capability (I didn't need this given my house has a full wired network but acting as a bridge it does enhance the existing wireless coverage and allows for greater portability if required), SSH access, and ...wait for it... IPv6! Okay, so this latter one may appeal to only a select few and I'd be the first to admit that a cat feeder is far from being one of the much-awaited 'killer apps' for IPv6 (indeed, some might argue it is more deserving of joining the list of 'apps that might kill IPv6'!)  but it does demonstrate one of the principle advantages of IPv6 - globally unique addressing for any device that wants it, even cat feeders. With the impending IPv4 address exhaustion it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide true end-to-end connectivity to networked devices without the use of Network Address Translation (NAT), port forwarding and various other tricks, most of which come with numerous drawbacks. In the case of Carrier-Grade NAT (CGN), the last-ditch attempt to keep IPv4 alive, it'd be practically impossible, at least without employing some form of clever client-side polling to provide a reverse connection with the outside world (if you think that sounds complicated wait until you try and implement it!). The size of the IPv6 address space is such that even my cat feeder now has its own globally-unique address, reachable from anywhere without any in-transit packet manipulation whatsoever and, for hex fans(?!), the IPv6 address does of course end with ::feed ... ;-)

World IPv6 Day LogoWorld IPv6 Day has been and gone, and Frankie and Elmo are back to two meals a day!

On the 8th June 2011, the Internet Society along with many of the 'Internet giants', took part in 'World IPv6 Day' - a first-of-its-kind event in the history of the Internet that enabled a large scale test of the 'new Internet protocol', IPv6. The event saw a mass enabling of IPv6 by those participating (content providers, transit providers, ISPs and end users) in order to give the protocol a run for its money to see what worked, and of course what didn't!

What was my contribution to this unique event? Well, in addition to taking part in a user trial of native IPv6 connectivity provided by my ISP (Plusnet) I also opened up control of my cat feeder - the world's first to support IPv6 - to anyone that cared to give my cats a treat. Anyone, that is, that had IPv6 connectivity of course... ;-)

Why? Good question... I could say it was to help demonstrate in a practical way how more and more devices are being hooked up to the Internet in such numbers that the dwindling pool of IPv4 addresses simply cannot hope to accomodate them, or that how such devices can be connected with relative ease given the lack of NAT configuration, port forwarding, etc. However, truth be told, it was mainly just a bit of fun...

So, how did it go? Well, very well in fact. Our cats thought Christmas had come early so it was a real success in their eyes, and they still don't know what IPv6 is! But that's the point - IPv6 is an enabler, something that operates behind the scenes, and shouldn't be the concern of the typical end user (admittedly cats probably don't fit that profile... yet).

Was/is IPv6 worth it then? Well, put it this way: Prior to the 8th June the cat feeder would, typically, feed the cats twice in 24hrs... On World IPv6 Day they were fed 168 times from all over the world by those with IPv6 so a quick calculation reveals that IPv6 is 84 times better than IPv4. Fact. ;-) The amount of IPv6 seen worldwide accounted for 0.04% of overall traffic on that day and, accordingly, there were 1000's of 'read only' visitors to the catfeeder coming in over IPv4 but we've got to start somewhere so all-in-all the day was quite a success!


Anyway, back on-track, I picked a Linksys up off eBay for £15 and set to work... The first task was to install third-party firmware on it - I opted for OpenWRT. This provided me full access to the workings of the device and, most importantly, allowed me to control a variety of status LEDs which in turn could control the operation of a motor exactly as per the Cisco switch. The LEDs I chose for the forward/reverse motor control were the otherwise-unused (when running OpenWRT) white and orange SES LEDs that sit behind the 'Cisco Systems' button on the front panel (Cisco now own Linksys so whilst I've dropped their C1924 switch I've at least still kept things within the family!). I also tapped into the DMZ LED to faciliate the 'emergency cutout' functionality. A +12v (1A) power feed was taken directly from the back of the DC power socket.

Linksys Router - Pre-Op!
Linksys WRT54GL Router - 'Pre Op'
Linksys Router - Front Panel Removed
Case Dismantling (Screwless)
Linksys Router - Innards
Router Innards
Linksys Router - PCB
PCB Removed from Case
Linksys Router - Power Connection Points
+12v (Top) and GND (Bottom)
Connection Points
Linksys Router - White/Orange LED Connection Points
White LED (Left) and Orange LED (Right)
Connection Points
Linksys Router - DMZ LED Connection Point
DMZ LED Connection Point
 
Linksys Router - Completed Wiring
Completed Wiring
(Looped through holes for strain relief)
Linksys Router - LED Testing
Pre-rebuild Testing
Linksys Router - External LEDs
External LED View
Linksys Router - Mounted (Rear View)
Mounted on Rear of Feeder
External Connections
External Connections

Aside from installing the OpenWRT firmware and providing basic configuration (wireless settings, IPv4/v6 addresses etc - easiest done via the web interface) I modified/created a few files/scripts (/etc/banner, /instructions, /etc/init.d/nvram and /etc/init.d/defaultled) to set the default states (on or off) of the LEDs during/after the boot process - this is necessary because during boot the state of the LEDs would otherwise be all over the place resulting in the feeder inadvertantly activating. It's not that big a deal, and indeed the device should only reboot if there's a power cut (and restore) so unless your cats are in the habit of flipping the master switch every now and then.... ;-)

Speaking of LEDs, it is worth mentioning at this point that the Linksys uses inverse logic to control them i.e. the general purpose input/output (GPIO) pins on the CPU are connected to the cathode ('negative') side of the LEDs with the anode ('positive') side connected to +3.3v. Hence, to illuminate an LED the CPU effectively outputs 0v and to extinguish an LED it outputs 3.3v (CMOS logic levels). Rather than modify my external motor control hardware (detailed in the next section) I handled this change of behaviour (when compared to my previous Cisco switch operation) in software i.e. by modifying the control script (available here) to set the appropriate state based on the user instruction.

Motor Control

With the ability to control the LEDs over the network (whether using the Cisco or the Linksys) the next step was to design and build an interface board to take the low power signals from the port status LEDs and in turn switch the high(er) power required to drive the motor. I designed a relatively simple circuit (it looks more complicated than it is) using only a handful of common components (transistors, relays, LEDs etc). The relays are wired such that it is possible to control the direction of the motor (i.e. by reversing the polarity of the applied voltage) and to also include a cutout relay designed to allow me to remotely cut the power in the event of a problem (e.g. out-of-control port, latched relay etc).

Circuit Schematic
Circuit Schematic (PDF)
Circuit Board
Mounted Control Board
  
The control board also features its own 8mm status LEDs for visual feedback - the red LED signifies power (and that the cutout hasn't activated) and the green/yellow LEDs signify forward/reverse (clockwise/anti-clockwise) feeding respectively. I later also added a button (not shown in the photo) to allow manual (i.e. local) control without having to use the PC.

Software

With everything connected up the feeder could now be controlled using the control scripts (i.e. the Cisco version or the Linksys) so, for example, 'catfeeder.exp forward 5' would feed for 5 seconds, 'catfeeder.exp cutout' would kill the power preventing any/all feeding, etc. The next logical step was to design a point-and-click web interface to handle these commands on the user's behalf.

The main web interface consists of five frames (see left-hand image below). The top frame lays out a series of buttons providing timed feeds, emergency stop (resetable) and other general controls. The middle frame provides the zoomable live video streaming (details below), the bottom-left frame shows the last 10 recorded 'events' i.e. detected motion from food delivery and/or the cats eating and, finally, the bottom-right frame shows the output from the control script i.e. the transcript of the login session with the Cisco switch (or the Linksys router of the Mark 2 version).

Various other interfaces were subsequently created such a cut-down versions for use on mobile devices (original my Windows Mobile PDA but later Android phones also) as well as a dual-screen implementation specifically for World IPv6 Day.


Web Interface
Standard Web Interface
Web Interface for World IPv6 Day
Dual-Screen Version for World IPv6 Day
Windows Mobile 'Lite' Interface
Windows Mobile 'Lite' Interface
Android App
Android App

In accordance with my design principle of attempting to reuse what I already had I followed suit with the video streaming
using a Panasonic BL-C1 IP camera interfaced into my existing open-source ZoneMinder-based CCTV security/surveillance system (for a long time now we've had such a camera monitoring the catflap so we can tell whether the cats are in/out wherever we might happen to be!). In addition to provide live video streaming (or refreshable static images when using the mobile interface on low-bandwidth connections) ZoneMinder also provides automatic event recording using its motion detection capabilities. This is achieved by defining 'zones' (see below) within which to watch for movement, the configuration of which can be tweaked in order to detect the cats eating but not reacting to other changes such as moving cloud cover, lights being switched on/off, etc.

IP Camera
IP Camera
(It was later mounted on the feeder itself)
Motion Detection Zones
Motion Detection 'Zones'
 
Motion Detection Zone Adjustment
Zone Configuration
 

The live video stream was critical to allow instant vertification of the cat feeder actually working, and to also observe all being well with the cats. All movement was automatically recorded and filed and could be replayed at the touch of a button to see all previous activations and the cats coming and going so even if we might not always see the cats live we could still check that they'd both recently been around.

Comments, Suggestions or Other Feedback?

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