Abstract Background The general or spontaneous motor activity of animals is a useful parameter in chronobiology. Modified motion detectors can be used to monitor locomotor activity rhythms. We modified a commercial microwave-based detection device and validated the device by recording circadian and ultradian rhythms. Methods Movements were detected by microwave radar based on the Doppler effect. The equipment was designed to detect and record simultaneously 12 animals in separate cages. Radars were positioned at the bottom of aluminium bulkheads. Animal cages were positioned above the bulkheads. The radars were connected to a computer through a digital I/O board. Results The apparatus was evaluated by several tests. The first test showed the ability of the apparatus to detect the exact frequency of the standard moving object. The second test demonstrated the stability over time of the sensitivity of the radars. The third was performed by simultaneous observations of video-recording of a mouse and radar signals. We found that the radars are particularly sensitive to activities that involve a displacement of the whole body, as compared to movement of only a part of the body. In the fourth test, we recorded the locomotor activity of Balb/c mice. The results were in agreement with published studies. Conclusion Radar detectors can provide automatic monitoring of an animal's locomotor activity in its home cage without perturbing the pattern of its normal behaviour or initiating the spurt of exploration occasioned by transfer to a novel environment. Recording inside breeding cages enables long-term studies with uninterrupted monitoring. The use of electromagnetic waves allows contactless detection and freedom from interference of external stimuli.