Brian Copeland

Trinidad and Tobago Icons Vol 3

It is a complex technology invented by non-scientists, a complex musical instrument created by non-musicians. These early inventors, and the subsequent generations of iconic ‘panmen’ who shaped its evolution, gifted to Trinidad and Tobago a true national treasure. In turn, the country has bequeathed to world cultural heritage the most significant acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century, and its distinctive sound, which defines this region, has captivated music lovers worldwide, from the United States to Sweden to Japan.

Very few have taken up the challenge of applying the principles and tools of science to making pan a better and more universally enjoyable instrument. One such champion is Prof. Brian Copeland, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at The University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine, an internationally known control systems specialist and inventor of the G-Pan and Percussive Harmonic Instrument (PHI).

Although Prof.Copeland has spent most of his life in Trinidad and Tobago, his ideas have impacted scientific understanding of control systems even abroad. Yet he remains a consummate and loyal citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, dedicating his expertise to improving the academic experience of those who follow in his footsteps, revolutionising our national instrument and promoting a more innovative, knowledge-driven society.

Born in 1956, Brian Copeland spent his childhood in Cocoyea Village, in a house he describes as “devoted to mas”. His father,  Mack Copeland, was an innovator in his own right who won titles for many bands in San Fernando, and was credited with introducing the use of gigantic headdresses and costumes for Carnival kings and queens, and wheels to give them mobility. Like many innovators, his work was not immediately appreciated. When he first introduced this design, it was disqualified! Growing up in this milieu of inventiveness, with a wealth of books lying around the house, young Brian grew to love learning and appreciate the virtue of problem-solving as he observed his father transform creative ideas into designs and designs into finished products.

He was an outstanding student,from his very start at Cocoyea Government Primary School. His early desire to be a medical doctor may have been influenced by his mother, Etheline, a nurse. She recounts her son, at age six, precociously informing her that he knew “how gravity works” – knowledge Copeland wishes he had retained! He visited the public library on Saturdays to read more about medicine, but by age 12 he had abandoned this dream, deciding that the field was “too messy, with too little structure and system” for his liking.

He won an Exhibition Scholarship and entered Presentation College, San Fernando, where he found his true calling – electronics.Through interactions with older students, he took up the popular boyhood hobby of his time:tinkering with radios. These were the early years of vacuum tubes, integrated circuits, transistors and widespread DJing. He was himself a DJ, with the ironic name, Party Heat Incorporated – acronym PHI! As his affinity for audio systems grew,he began buying parts from repair shops, tinkering with the family Blaupunkt radio to his father’s dismay, and eventually repairing radios, and building his first amp at 16. This pastime did much to spur his interest in acoustics, which he went on to research and teach.

Finishing his A-levels in mathematics, physics and chemistry, Copeland won a National Scholarship and started his B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering at UWI in 1975. However, a huge teaching strike in 1976 resulted in him switching from electronics to control systems. He graduated with first class honours, topping the faculty’s class of ’78 with an average that was unbeaten until the mid-2000s.

He pursued an M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering at the University of Toronto in Canada, focusing on control theory – the science governing the modification, adaptation and stimulation of dynamic systems used in automation and robotics. The university was involved in aerospace research at the time, and after he left, some of his thesis work was used in developing the “Canadarm” (or mechanical arm) that was subsequently used in NASA’s space shuttle programme.

After completing his M.Sc. in 1981, Copeland returned to UWI as a lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. In Trinidad, he found that his field of choice had limited application locally. By chance in UWI’s labs, he encountered “Tessie” Julien, a technician who played pan with Carib Tokyo and who bemoaned the difficulty steelbands had with being heard at Carnival time, having to compete with DJs. Marrying his love for music to training electrical engineering, he began work on steelpan amplification. Some form of pickup device was required to convert the steelpan note vibrations to an electrical signal that could then be used for amplification. This proved to be quite a challenge as percussive instruments generate an impulsive noise when struck and this is all too easily detected by a pickup. Moreover, attachment of a pickup to the pan essentially transforms it into a large microphone that can be the source of feedback when amplified.

Over the years, he experimented with three types of pickups – two contact types that were attached directly to the pan and a more bulky non-contact type. This LectraPan system, worked brilliantly, allowing bands to employ much smaller bass pans, thus saving space and making transportation easier. It was launched in July 1987 at the Carib Tokyo panyard. Copeland received three patents for this invention. A few years before that he had published a paper on the Development of an Electronic Steel Pan in the West Indian Journal of Engineering, unknowingly foreshadowing one of his own future projects.

The problems he encountered in steelpan amplification alerted him to the need for more in-depth research on steelpan technology – a phrase he coined to represent all aspects of how steelpans work. He documented these problems as targets for future research in a letter to the Minister of Culture at the time, in the hope of getting government funding.

Later in 1987, Copeland received a LASPAU/Fulbright scholarship to pursue his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at the University of Southern California in the US, focusing on control system algorithm design. He worked with Prof. Michael Safonov on his thesis, beginning a research partnership that would continue after his return to Trinidad and Tobago in 1990.  Returning to UWI in 1990, he shifted his research focus from the theoretical to more application-oriented studies. He introduced MATLAB scientific computing software to the department. Although his undergraduate training in digital electronics had been aborted by the strike, at the urging of then Head, Prof. Kenneth Julien, he taught himself the topic and established a very successful course stream in this area.

Under his tutelage, there was significant improvement in the competence of final year students in digital electronics design and fabrication. His interest in ensuring that students acquired skills that would allow them to engage in innovation and entrepreneurship in complex electronic systems design after graduation was stymied by the costly tools and software available at the time for making custom integrated circuits (ICs). A word of advice from a colleague in 1995 provided the answer. FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays) were very densely populated ICs that could be field programmed, custom-made for clients and “locked” to prevent tampering.  They had been used by the microprocessor giant, Intel, to design the first Pentium chip. They provided a means by which engineers in the Caribbean could produce complex integrated circuits for clients in any part of the world, without the need for expensive ICfabrication machinery.

Over the years, Prof. Copeland honed his expertise and provided his students with practical experience in developing various industrial control systems. In 1991, as a consultant in the university’s newly formed Real Time Systems Group (RTSG) lead by Prof. St Clair King, he developed a power demand controller for Trinidad ISPAT– a device that provided power usage warnings at the company’s plant to reduce the cost of electricity. In 1995, he co-supervised the design of a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition System (SCADA) – an automated system for monitoring and regulating the operation of equipment and the collection of data for the Arcadian oil plant in Pt.Lisas and subsequently deployed at TRINMAR. In the late 1990s, he served as the consultant and Project Leader in RTSG for the design and construction of the first electronic scoreboard at the Queen’s Park Oval. RTSG was financed from project income as well as funding from local corporations, NIHERST and the OAS. It was through his work at RTSG that Copeland developed a full understanding of the need for a stronger innovative culture to support sustainable economic growth.

In 1997, Copeland had become Senior Lecturer and Head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UWI. In 1999, with Prof. Clement Imbert and Dr. Derek Gay, also steelpan researchers at UWI, he founded the Steelpan Development Centre, which used the sciences of metallurgy and electronics to explore mechanisms for improving the instrument. In 2001, Copeland started work with Prof. Tom Rossing of Northern Illinois University on mapping the sound radiation patterns of the instrument.

The centre was intended to source funds for collaborative steelpan research and development (R&D) work on existing projects at the Steelpan Development Laboratory. By the time the laboratory was officially opened in 2004, Copeland had already developed the Robo-pan – a mechanism that enabled a computer to “play” a steelpan– and the earliest incarnation of the MIDIPan, a collaborative effort that was a synthesizer whose “keys” took the shape of a steelpan’s notes rather than a piano’s keys.

Copeland was passionate about the centre because of his conviction that steelpan technology R&D would allow locals to capitalize on their national instrument in ways that foreigners could not, giving them a competitive advantage in the global steelpan market. Copeland’s vision was to address the problems he had identified in the eighties and to engage in R&D to improve on the instrumentsignificantly, as a catalyst for the growth of the industry internationally. However, there was little support at the time.

In 2005, when Copeland was about to lose hope of continuing his work on pan, he was contacted by the Prime Minister’s office. A grant soon followed to solve one of the steelpan’s well documented problems – the tendency of higher notes in the tenor pan to demonstrate harshness or acoustic dissonance. He took this opportunity to tackle other problems he had observed as well, viz. the use of material of unknown quality; the lack of applied scientific knowledge in the process of pan building and tuning; and the pan’s tendency to go off-tune over time. The fruit of Copeland’s work was the much acclaimed G-Pan, a steelpan made from high quality steel, with reduced dissonance, more resilience, a musical range half an octave higher than an average steelpan which reduced the number of pans in a steelband from 11 to four.

At the same time, Prof. Copeland secured additional funding as a grant for commercial developmentof ongoing activities in the laboratory, most significantly the prototype MIDIpan, which was renamed the Percussive Harmonic Instrument (PHI). As Copeland describes it, “The PHI includes electronics technology never before used in the region. Many thought that a device of this complexity could not be built here. We proved them wrong!”

Copeland became Professor and Dean in 2007. He has been honoured with several awards including the Chaconia Medal Gold of the Order of the Trinity, in the area of Music Innovation (Team Award), and UWI/Guardian Life Premium Teaching Award.

As an educator and scientist, he strongly advocates for changes in the education system to engender more creative thinking in students and more local innovation in science and technology. In his view,“The very survival of our country and the world depends on having a critical mass of scientists, engineers and technicians to solve pressing development problems. But young people are not entering the sciences because there seem to be easier options and the fields are not presented to them as exciting or rewarding. Many get through the science courses by cramming and therefore don’t develop real understanding of concepts. We are ending up as just users of modern technology. This will keep us solidly ‘third world’. Students should be encouraged to explore science themselves. There is enough information on the Internet to provide the necessary level of excitement and understanding. And they should play a lot. But the school system must really stop pigeon-holing them in specific areas from too early an age. Everyone should be exposed to a wide array of subjects, even up to CAPE. Heavy specialization stunts mental growth.”

Copeland’s believes that his work on pan “not only underscores the fact that Trinidad and Tobago has the capability to do high-tech inventions, but also clearly reveals the gaps in the region that prevent us going from invention to innovation. This capability is essential for building a high degree of robustness and sustainability in the socio-economic systems that support development.”

Prof. Copeland’s drive to enable the region to be better prepared economically has lead to several additions to the offerings at the UWI.  One of these is a course on acoustics that trains students in diagnosing and treating acoustic problems. He has also led the development of standards for instructional spaces at UWI and formed the Classroom Technology Support Unit to monitor and implement these standards.

What Brian Copeland does in his spare time is pretty much identical to what he does at work, such is his passion: he assists churches with their acoustics. As he puts it, “Most sound systems in the Catholic churches are pathetic. This work has now become a sort of ministry for me. We have a good template for church sound system design, acoustic treatment for speech intelligibility and installation. And we do all the work for free.”