The military is already equipped with drones carrying weapons, but they don’t necessarily have the hover skills of a helicopter. Robotic helicopters also were generally too small to carry weapons. Now, the U.S. Navy will get the best of both worlds as it signed a $17 million deal with Northrop Grumman Corp., to weaponize the MQ-8B Fire Scout, which was already in use for surveillance missions without weapons in the Middle East.

(Related: See Texas’ new grenade launcher-equipped drone in action)

Navy Signs Deal to Weaponize Fire Scout Drone Helicopter

(Photo: Northrop Grumman)

The LA Times (via Business Insider) reports that the deal announced this week means the military is getting its first unmanned weaponized helicopters – 168 in total – for which delivery is expected by March 2013:

“It’s a very significant moment in naval history,” said Mark L. Evans, a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command. “The weaponization of this aircraft represents a quantum leap in technology compared to what has come before.”

The military believes that the Fire Scout, which is remotely controlled by a pilot on a ship, is ideal in its ability to hover and attack hostile drug-runners, pirates and battleships.

According to the LA Times, the weapon-free version of the drone helicopters are already operating in Afghanistan and Libya where “ the drone can spot hostile threats, but not eliminate them.” The weaponized Fire Scout will be able to do both:

“Arming the system is part of a natural evolution,” said Phil Finnegan, an aerospace expert with Teal Group Corp., a Fairfax, Va.-based research firm. As the technology moves forward, drones “will be expected to carry out more complex missions,” Finnegan said.

Watch the weapon-free version of Fire Scout here:

After this original story was posted, it came to our attention that this is not in fact the first weaponized drone helicopter for the Navy. DASH (Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter) was created in the 1960s.