Derek Gowanlock



Vertiflite Leadership Profile from Vertiflite July/August 2022

Derek Gowanlock, Technical Lead for Flight Autonomy, National Research Council

With 11 National Research Council (NRC) of Canada investigators — plus government, industry and academic collaborators — Derek “Duff” Gowanlock takes a crawl-walk-run approach to autonomous flight (see “Supervised Autonomy, Step-by-Step,” Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2021). In March, the NRC Bell 412 advanced systems research aircraft at Ottawa’s Flight Research Laboratory flew departure, enroute and approach profiles hands-off and chose a ramp spot among other helicopters for a landing guided by light detection and ranging (lidar). “It was actually a pretty significant milestone for us,” said Gowanlock. To our knowledge, it’s the first complete supervised autonomy flight on a transport-category helicopter in Canada, ever.”

The technical leader for the Canadian Vertical Lift Autonomy Demonstration continued, “There’s so much complexity around autonomy, around employment responsibilities, safety and airworthiness considerations, human-machine teaming, manned-unmanned teaming. We now have a foothold, a baseline capability that can support not only the Royal Canadian Air Force [RCAF] and Defence Research and Development Canada [DRDC], who’s our biggest collaborator, but also Canadian industry.” He added, “It’s not many organizations that can put together a modular, full autonomous flight capability that can then be used to plug in different sensors or algorithms.”

The NRC and Boeing also aim to implement levels of autonomy in a Chinook helicopter with an eye to other platforms. “I tend to look at it like ripples in a pond,” said Gowanlock. “We drop the pebble in the pond and want to demonstrate autonomous technology for the Air Force so they understand pilot workload and pilot responsibilities and the increased operational capability that autonomy can provide. The ripples that come out of that are building a capability to support the development of regulations. The biggest ripple is the long-term capability — what we call the autonomous X-aircraft function.”

Derek Gowanlock came to the NRC in 2016 following a rich engineering and test career in the RCAF. He retired as the commanding officer of Canadian Special Operations Forces Command headquarters in Ottawa. “The operationally-focused culture of Special Forces is something special. I was so pleased when I arrived at the NRC flight research lab to see that same focus. It’s a research culture certainly, but the motivation and the passion that people have here is simply amazing.”

Farm to Flight Test
Derek Gowanlock found his passion for aviation in Forestburg, Alberta, population 700. The flight test engineer and pilot recalled, “One of my earliest memories is scratching out a crayon-filled letter to NASA to ask about the Apollo program. I still actually have the coffee-table books that were shipped back to me when I was, I think, five years old. My entire life, I’ve been involved with aviation.”

Royal Roads Military College (RRMC) in Victoria, British Columbia, provided an enduring foundation. “My parents certainly helped shape that,” acknowledged Gowanlock. “Coming from a small town, we weren’t wealthy people, so a sponsored program was of interest. In high school, I was good in math and science. Engineering is where I knew I’d want to go. Mechanical/aerospace was what I was thinking, but I was anticipating going to a local university. It was my parents who put the bug in my ear about the opportunity that going to RRMC would provide.”

Early on, the Air Force promised opportunities. Gowanlock explained, “When you join, they ask you to pick your top three occupations you’ll do for the rest of your career. I put aerospace engineer on the list. When I went into the recruiter to talk about all this, there was a magazine on the waiting room table. I read this article by a young captain who later became one of my mentors, Mario Lagrange. It talked about what flight tests engineers do at the Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment [AETE]. As soon as I read that article, I knew instantly that was what I wanted to do. As it turns out, when you recruit in, aerospace engineering is the trade and flight test engineering is the sub-specialty of that.”

An assignment as a maintenance officer with a Hercules transport squadron led to a busy tour at the AETE in Cold Lake, Alberta. Gowanlock recalled, “I got to cut my teeth on simple air weapons testing — ejecting chaff and flares from [Bell 412] Griffon helicopters and then moved up to test the integration of the first precision guided munitions on the Canadian Air Force CF-18. When I got to the flight test unit, it was clear that it was going to be a good fit for me.”

The AETE shared a relationship with the University of Tennessee Space Institute (UTSI) in Tullahoma, Tennessee. Gowanlock remembered, “There was an amazing professor there, Dr. Ahmad Vakili. When I met with him it was obvious where I would want to work and who I would want to work with. He had so much energy, so much passion. I did experimental aerodynamics as my focus. That got me into rotary-wing aerodynamics at the very grass-roots level. My thesis was about blade vortex interaction and disrupting vortices shed by tip jets using mass injection. It held great promise, but it introduces practical integration complexity in a real helicopter, so it hasn’t taken off like gangbusters.”

Gowanlock trained as a rotary-wing flight test engineer at the National Test Pilot School in Mojave, California. “The experience set that Test Pilot School brings was, for me, absolutely invaluable. It’s first about the philosophy of flight test. How you do flight test safely and efficiently? Then it’s all about understanding the foundational technical elements behind why you test what you test. And then it’s the practical application of that knowledge on platforms that demonstrate abnormal or undesirable characteristics.”

The curriculum supplemented the school’s OH-58, UH-1 and MD500 helicopters with rotorcraft on loan and flying elsewhere. Gowanlock recalled, “We did ground resonance testing in an S-55 Chickasaw with quad landing gear. We went to Vancouver Island and flew the Kamov Helix. We went to Poland and flew the W3, Mi-2 and a few other platforms. We went to Italy and flew the Mangusta and A109. We also went to Mesa, Arizona, to visit the Groen Brothers who were then developing a PT6-powered gyroplane. The aircraft are picked to broaden exposure, and no aircraft is perfect, so they selected gyros that had some deficiencies. After we saw the deficiencies, we were a little less intrigued by the idea of these gyros in the future, but it’s still an amazing capability.”

War in Afghanistan sent Gowanlock to deploy the rail-launched, parachute-recovered SAGEM Sperwer uncrewed aircraft system (UAS) with Canadian forces in Kabul. “It was a real struggle to adapt airworthiness to drones as compared to manned platforms,” he acknowledged. “The system had never been flown in operations — only in a training or development context in Europe — and the company itself did all that flying in coastal France. We took it to an operating environment that was routinely 10,000-ft [3,000-m] density altitude in the summer. It was a big effort, and the first real practical exposure I got to this marriage of hard-earned aviation knowledge interacting with this emerging technology.”

Gowanlock returned to lead the combined test force for the CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopter program. “That was one of the pinnacle opportunities of my career for sure,” he said. “Cold Lake is in northern Alberta — harsh winters, lots of bugs in the summer. The opportunity to be embedded with Sikorsky at West Palm Beach, Florida, wasn’t a bad thing. The biggest benefit was the people that on the team at Sikorsky with great flight test and design experience that we were able to engage with and help develop the fly-by-wire system.” Gowanlock noted, “At that point, regulations and standards around fly-by-wire systems were embryonic. Classical handling qualities tests just weren’t fully appropriate for a fly-by-wire system. That’s what was fun and challenging.”

Analyzing Autonomy
Derek Gowanlock left the military for the civilian NRC. “There was never a position for flight test engineers [FTEs] in the organization. The researchers did very well in the role, but they didn’t have classically-trained FTEs. The Air Force had a great path ahead of me, lots of opportunity, but one of my senior test pilots was at NRC, and he created a position for a flight test engineer. It was just at the right time, and it was an easy, easy decision to make.”

Gowanlock was involved immediately in remotely piloted aircraft systems. “At the time, we had a research program called Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems. I got involved with Boeing in some projects around high-altitude unmanned aircraft. The first little bits of autonomy, the core of our work that we’re doing now, were starting to circulate.” NRC now implements levels of autonomy in the fly-by-wire Bell 412 and simulations. “What we’re doing here we consider supervised autonomy. We want to build more advanced levels as we gain knowledge around the design and operation of autonomous systems.”

Autonomous flight is at the heart of advanced air mobility (AAM) concepts, including urban air taxis. “I think it’s still a ways off,” conceded Gowanlock. “There are so many factors — issues like liability and insurance — that we need to work through to understand the financial viability of those models, but technically, I think it’s possible.”

Derek Gowanlock joined VFS during his graduate studies. “I attended a Forum with Dr. Vakili to see the cutting-edge technology and also to meet people who were working in the field. Throughout my career, I’ve tried to maintain that connection, go to the Forum as often as I can, because obviously it’s the ideal way to stay abreast of what’s going on internationally.”