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An Ockham of Gatwick

The 13th century theologian and philosopher, William of Ockham, who once lived in his small Surrey village, not so very far from what is today, the wide concrete expanse of Gatwick airport is a frequently referenced source of intellectual reason. His contribution to modern culture was Ockham’s Razor, which cautions us when problem solving, that “The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct;” sound advice which constantly proves to be true.

A week further-on since Britain’s second busiest airport was bought to a complete standstill by two or perhaps two hundred different drone sightings, it is perhaps time to revisit William of Ockham’s maxim, rather than be led astray by an increasingly bizarre narrative, one which has led Surrey police up several blind alleys with little or nothing in the way of measurable results.

 Exploring the possibilities with a little help in reasoning from our medieval friar, we appear to have a choice of two different accounts of what may or may not have happened at Gatwick last week. Taking the first, ‘Significatio locutionis simplicissimæ’, two drones were sighted at Gatwick’s southern perimeter on Wednesday 19th December at 9pm and this was supported by five police officers.

This southern perimeter as you will see on Google maps around the Charlwood Rd, has a great deal of green space and is on the very edge of the 1km GPS geo-fencing that is built-in now, by software default, into most popular consumer drones.

White label and off-the-shelf, mail order drone assembly kits can of course bypass geo-fencing, so we might assume it was one of these for the sake of argument but in any event, Gatwick’s flight operations were stopped for sound safety reasons. The interruption to flights, which impacted over 100,000 passengers continued into the next day with as many as 200 reported sightings collected by the police; none of which appear to have been verified and leading me to remark on Sky News that this was ‘Somewhere between a series of unfortunate events and close encounters of the third kind.’

If we apply Ockham’s Razor to what we have in reliable evidence, then someone sent a drone into Gatwick’s airspace and most likely from the concealment of the southern side of the airport. The same exercise may or may not have repeated the ‘stunt’ on the following day. It’s quite possible the drone the police have found is indeed this one, but its operator is now long gone.

On the second day, the narrative swiftly evolved into something much more serious, driven along by the current of the media, the tabloids and public opinion. The police talked in terms of a ‘large’ and ‘advanced’ drone of a commercial size but no evidence was ever offered to support this other than eyewitness accounts which appear to have been taken mostly in the dark.

Because of the near catastrophic impact on Gatwick’s flight operations in one of the busiest weeks of the year, answers were required and the prevailing conversation shifted towards one of ‘environmental activist(s) directing an advanced and purpose-built drone, from a distance, to purposely bring the airport to a halt. All of this conjecture was supported by no tangible evidence other than the wildest speculation.

Finally, the theory started to tip towards the involvement of an even more sophisticated nation state or pseudo-terrrorist actor and swiftly descended into the realm of imaginative nonsense. This is now where we find ourselves during the break between Christmas and New Year. We can assume for the sake of argument that there were at least one or more drone incursions on the first evening but this is all we really seem to know for certain.

What followed over the next twenty-four hours appears very fuzzy indeed. Appealing to reason, I prefer to fall back on the sound advice of William of Ockham and this suggests that a single or perhaps twice repeated incident appears to have transformed into a suitable plot for the next 007 movie with an equal level of excitement and interest. Once the traffic had stopped and all around the world passengers were delayed, Gatwick needed a better story than the simplest explanation possible and the media obligingly delivered this in time for Xmas.

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