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.
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.