The U.S. Navy/Northrop Grumman X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) team broke a barrier in 2013, proving that a stealthy, unmanned aircraft can operate on and around the aircraft carrier deck and clinching the Laureate for Aeronautics and Propulsion.

On a tight $1.4 billion budget, the team's work culminated in a series of trials demonstrating that a relative GPS system and digital interface between aircraft and carrier could safely and repeatedly allow for landings, takeoffs and operations on a carrier deck at sea. The work has blazed a trail that opens the door for the Navy to marry the range and persistence of unmanned aircraft with the reach of an aircraft carrier.

The competition for this category was strong, however. Also nominated for the honor was the F135 Integrated Flight and Propulsion Control System team, which quelled skeptics last year.

During its second round of flight tests at sea, the F-35B—with its unique lift-fan design for dynamic inversion—proved the stealthy aircraft can eventually operate off the Pentagon's small-deck amphibious ships; the single-engine fighter racked up 95 vertical landings and 94 takeoffs thanks to the innovative design. Its performance positions the F-35B to someday take over missions of the Marine Corps' venerable AV-8B Harrier.

The efforts of AgustaWestland's Advanced Concepts group were also of note in 2013. The team, led by James Wang, demonstrated substantial advances in electrical vertical lift through Project Zero. During the trials, the team executed a 5-min. sortie for a vertical-lift system using electrical power.

Finally, NASA was commended for drafting a seminal plan to tackle its own aeronautics challenges, despite budget limits, thanks to the leadership provided by Associate Administrator for Aeronautics Jaiwon Shin and his team. They have laid out an aeronautics path forward—a thorny task in an agency focused on space—to push the technological envelope amid global competitive pressures and environmental concerns.