Ah fame, that double-sided coin. The same month BRINC Drones founder and CEO Blake Resnick was feted as the youngest person named to the Forbes “30 Under 30 Social Impact” list, the young entrepreneur also finds himself drawing unwanted attention – and no little ire – for a resurfaced 2018 promotional video in which he hawks a border surveillance device that tases an immigrant.
A tide of both national and international press coverage has risen in the wake of the initial story in The Intercept this week. That details the Resnick-fronted video for the BRINC border control system he calls “Wall of Drones.” Sporting a black blazer and a tidier version of his trademark Eraserhead redux coiffe, the teenaged Resnick describes the platform as a series of solar-powered nests from which automated drones strike out to scan the surrounding desert for potential drug or human traffickers. When it encounters suspicious types, the UAV alerts human monitors who remotely confront the suspects, demand identification the camera can relay, and decide whether authorities should be called in or not. In the video’s simulated case they are – but only after the drone tases a presumably undocumented individual who refuses to cooperate.
Given the divisive debate over the treatment of undocumented immigrants – and the generally fractious state of US society in general these days – it isn’t surprising that Resnick’s taser-shooting drone product has sparked outrage from some quarters, and even calls to boycott BRINC.
It also doesn’t help that the rather hackneyed promo really lays the border (in)security aspect especially thick (“Every year, over $100 billion of narcotics and half a million people flow through areas just like this one,” Resnick says amid the dusty scrub). Also cringe-inspiring is the mesa-wandering Latino character identified as “José,” who when ordered to show identification whips out a gun and – holding it sideways, gangsta-style – mocks the drone with “this is identification” before walking off and getting a back full of taser. It’s just as well the Bulwer Lytton Contest does not have “product pitch video” category.
Also fueling the fire of negative reaction to both the footage and “Wall of Drones” system is the stark manner in which the device contrasts BRINC’s current, carefully maintained reputation as a human startup with a big heart.
Indeed, its iconic “drones for good” business mission strives to “build technologies that save lives.” According to company lore, that was a direct outgrowth of Resnick watching the horrific 2017 Mandalay Bay mass killings in Resnick’s Las Vegas hometown, and create drone products capable of allowing authorities to react to and end them quickly. In addition to his work with police, fire, and first responders in developing BRINC’s Lemur drone to their needs, Resnick most recently won plaudits for jumping on a plane to personally deliver the craft for use in the aftermath of Florida’s Surfside condo collapse.
Both those efforts, and that reputation, aided Resnick in October to raise a cool $25 million in funding for BRINC Drones from investors like Index Ventures, Jeff Weiner, and Sam Altman.
Little wonder, then, that virtually all coverage of The Intercept discovery has been heavy with “well, look what the little angel’s been hiding” schadenfreude. No little attention has been turned to the “before” shot of the younger Resnick offering an arguably unflattering comparison with his “after” status as a Good Samaritan CEO. Ditto the sight of BRINC pushing an immigrant-zapping drone system in the middle of Trump-era upheaval over the treatment of undocumented people; and today espousing beatified corporate tenants including “never build technologies to harm or kill,” and “be mindful of the implications of our work – we won’t build a dystopia.”
Be all that as it may, it’s also only fair to point out that most of the harsher scrutiny of the video has come from media that wouldn’t be described as “right-leaning.” It’s also worth noting most coverage carefully notes Resnick’s status as a Thiel Fellow, thus linking him to the man many observers – and virtually all progressives – regard as the most notorious tax-hating, Trump-boosting, let’s-go-create-a-country-of-our-own-and-not-waste-money-on-the-poor Libertarian Silicon Valley billionaires around. That, it would seem, also makes Resnick guilty by association in such circles.
For his part, Resnick has clearly recognized the resurfaced tasing drone video is toxic, and risks creating real problems for himself and the company. As a result, he has made an effort to at least appear to fulfill another BRINC commandment – “be open and transparent.”
Indeed, in the original Intercept article, he readily admits the entire “Wall of Drones” concept was “immature, deeply regrettable and not at all representative of the direction I have taken the company in since.”
As a sign of just how serious he seems to view the revelation – and in a somewhat heady confession with the Theranos trial still underway – Resnick told the publication the entire demonstration “video was faked,” and used a drone with a simulated taser to intimate the efficacy of a system that was “never fully developed, sold, or used operationally.” In doing so, he seemed to apologize for “Wall of Drones” as a misguided concept from that specific era, and anathema to the kinds of products and work he’s committed himself to since.
“The technology as depicted is unethical and that is one of the reasons we created a set of Values and Ethics to guide our work,” Resnick told The Intercept.
Will the precociously successful and attention-grabbing CEO manage to weather the media tempest now battering him unscathed? A lot will depend on how valued BRINC’s current work is to clients relative to how sternly they and others frown on its “Wall of Drones” past. Yet because of that, it’s a pretty good bet efforts Resnick has made since the “Wall of Drones” video – and which have earned him such high praise – will help memories of that avowedly bad project in years gone by dissipate faster than they might have otherwise.
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