After publication of a front-page Seattle Times feature Sunday on Brinc Drones and its remarkable 22-year-old CEO Blake Resnick, a drone technology expert drew attention in a social media post to a December story by the investigative journalism outlet The Intercept — a much darker tale about an earlier Resnick project that envisaged using drones to track and even attack people.
Resnick in an interview Monday apologized for the project, which he began when he was 16 and abandoned four years ago before it was ever deployed. He blamed his immaturity and insisted he regrets doing it.
He said he’s taken to heart the imperative that his company will never make such drones.
“I crossed the line and realized it and, I believe, have taken actions to prevent something similar from occurring again,” Resnick said. “I look back at that as helpful in making it clear that a strong moral compass and ethical North Star is required in the type of business that I’m building.”
The Intercept story recounted how in 2018, at the height of President Donald Trump’s campaign against immigrants entering the U.S. illegally from Mexico, Resnick marketed drones as a cheap way to patrol the border — a much cheaper “Wall of Drones” instead of Trump’s physical wall.
He imagined hundreds of base stations spaced along the border between which the drones would fly in search of intruders while transmitting video to Border Patrol officers at control centers.
A key detail, noted in a patent Resnick filed in 2018, is that his drones would be armed with Tasers to “immobilize or incapacitate intruders until border agents arrive.”
A promotional video from that time, introduced by a then-17-year-old Resnick, shows a fake encounter in which an actor playing a Hispanic man, “José,” is intercepted as he walks alone across the desert near the border.
The drone confronts him, hovering in front of his face as the remote border agent controlling it curtly demands in English that he identify himself.
In the video, José pulls a handgun on the buzzing robot spewing voice commands. The drone fires a Taser into him, and José collapses.
It’s a far cry from the mission Resnick now promotes of using drones to help rescue people in dangerous situations. And it flatly contradicts Brinc’s current ethics statement that it will “Never build technologies designed to hurt or kill.”
Is this the dark reality behind an empty ethics statement? No, said Resnick. He cites a change of heart as he grew from teenager to young man.
In a mea culpa piece on Medium.com after the Intercept story was published, he accepted its criticism of the Wall of Drones concept.
“I view the technology and video as immature, offensive and regrettable,” he wrote. “It is not at all representative of the direction I have taken the company in since 2018.”
Resnick said Monday that even back then, the idea was never to target and attack random migrants crossing the desert.
Instead, he said, as the video was meant to imply, the Taser was intended to be used in a confrontation with armed drug smugglers who sometimes exchanged fire with Border Patrol agents.
“It was designed to be used instead of a bullet. But again, none of this is to defend it,” Resnick said. “I do feel strongly that this is a bad idea. I regret doing it.”
“Keep in mind that these were my actions before Brinc existed at all. We had no employees. We had no funding. No one on the current team worked on this besides myself,” he added. “It never worked, never sold, never deployed. I’m glad it never progressed beyond a faked demo video.”
He said the direction Brinc took changed in the months after the mass shooting in Las Vegas in fall 2017 that killed 60 people at a concert outside the Mandalay Bay hotel.
“I knew, unfortunately, a lot of people that got hurt at that event,” Resnick said. “It absolutely did have an impact on my thinking about these issues.”
Faine Greenwood, a consultant and researcher on drone technologies and ethics, who linked to the Intercept article on the Twitter thread about the Seattle Times article, said she’s ready to believe that Resnick personally has grown and changed.
Yet she remains deeply skeptical of tech companies developing products for law enforcement and military applications.
Brinc is “focused on the police market, because honestly, that’s where the money is in drones,” she said. “And we know there are certainly a lot of issues with American policing right now.”
“The way police are funded in this country, they get a ton of money to buy new technology,” she added. “There’s not a ton of oversight for how they use those funds.”
And she is dismissive of Brinc’s statement of ethics and values, which rules out building weaponized drone systems.
“Ethics statements at private tech companies are not legally binding in any way,” Greenwood said. “These are basically marketing materials.”
In the piece he wrote on Medium.com, Resnick said Brinc’s ethics statement grew out of the realization that the risks of misuse of weaponized drones outweigh the rewards. He insisted he won’t turn back from that viewpoint.
“It took building an unethical prototype to figure out where that line was,” Resnick wrote. “Since drawing that line, we have not and will not step over it.”