How hackers and spies tried to steal the secrets of Australia's one-armed robot bricklayer

FBR Building its first house — the one-armed robot bricklayer.
  • FBR says it has increased security to keep the secrets of the one-armed robot bricklayer.
  • The robot has been moved to a secret location.
  • And FBR staff have been schooled in how to lose a tail.

The team behind the creation of the one-armed robot bricklayer had to take extraordinary security measures to protect the secrets behind the technology driving their disruptor to the building industry.

Robotic technology company FBR Limited this month announced that its Hadrian X, the commercial version of its robot, built a 180 square metre, three-bedroom, two-bathroom home in less than the targeted three days.

A structural engineering consultancy group verified the structure met relevant building standards in what the company has called a world first.

The bricklaying robot, which can put up a square meter of wall in 2.5 minutes using blocks weighing 19 kilos, is attracting interest from around the world.

The company already has investment from, and collaboration with, US-based construction machinery giant Caterpillar. And the company is in talks with some of the world’s biggest block (brick) makers.

Mike Pivac, the CEO of FBR, told the company’s AGM last week that the Hadrian X was shifted to a “secret, secure” location.

“This was partly due to the physical constraints of our (Perth) High Wycombe facility, and partly to ensure our people were able to concentrate on getting the job done without the daily distractions that come with being part of a company that attracts the public interest,” he says.

FBRA rendered wall in the house built by robot.

Pivac told Business Insider the company had to move the Hadrian X out of its High Wycombe facility on security grounds with escalating attempts to get information on the testing of the commercial machine.

The staff were briefed not to wear any identifying clothing, such as company logo t-shirts, and to take diversionary action when moving between the two facilities to ensure they were not followed.

The incident which pushed FBR into secrecy mode was the appearance of a car with two GoPro cameras taped to the roof which drove in the company’s yard and through the factory.

And within 15 minutes, the footage was on a share market tipping site.

“There’s a roundabout near where our secret facility is, and we make our people go around a couple times, make sure they’re not being tailed, and then off they go,” says Pivac.

“No-one in the last six months has worn a single bit of clothing that identifies them as an FBR employee to this facility.

“It’s been going 24 hours a day 7 days a week, and we’ve been able to keep people away.

“I would say we’re probably getting to the end of that good run, or bit of good luck I suppose.

“And people are starting to work it out, but it’s now not as important as it was two weeks ago, before we actually got the first building. So, if we get people peeking through the doors now that’s okay.”

Here’s the robot at work building a house:

FBR is also taking a diligent approach to protecting the one-armed robot bricklayer from cyber attacks.

“We’ve had overseas, international firms come to FBR and do break in tests on us to see how easy it we are to penetrate,” says Pivac.

“We failed and they showed us where we failed and had to plug those gaps.”

The company’s IT department regularly picks up attempts to get in to the system.

The company has 25 patent families and as many as 17 patents within each of them.

“There’s a lot of tech that we’ve got our arms around at the moment, and it’s very valuable because we will be the first people to take a robot outside,” he says. “Everybody’s been wanting to do this for a long time.”

Most robots in the world are bolted to factory floors, doing repetitive tasks day and night.

FBR’s bricklaying robot is mobile, can be moved from site to site and can be programmed to build to different designs.

Pivac says the last big change to have a big influence on construction was the introduction of the concrete pumping truck in the 1970s.

With robot bricklaying, it’s about ordering a wall by the metre and then cladding with whatever you want.

“We know exactly how long it will take, exactly what it would cost — you can program that machine to arrive in a year’s time, and know exactly what it’s going to cost,” he says.

“This is a major shift and a major risk reduction for construction companies, and it’s why the block (brick) manufacturers see FBR as the ability to change their product offering to their customers.”

Sometime early in the new year the robot bricklayer will return to the High Wycombe facility near Perth Airport and become more visible.

“We’ve built a viewing platform and building slab and we’re getting ourselves ready for a fantastic demonstration of the machine for industry players, shareholders, and the media,” says Pivac.

“Our fabricators are actually making this thing as we speak so people can get up and safely look over the site as the machine’s doing it’s thing.”

In the meantime, the one-armed bricklaying robot is contracted to build ten homes in Western Australia in 2019.

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