The Navy has elected to extend the deployment of the MQ-8B Fire Scout in Afghanistan, manufacturer Northrop Grumman [NOC] said recently, adding the unmanned helicopter has improved the ability of ground commanders to spot potential threats.

The company will operate and maintain Fire Scout systems through October 2012 under an $18.6 million contract handed down by Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) on Sept. 28, Northrop Grumman said.

A team of Navy sailors and Northrop Grumman staff began using Fire Scout in Afghanistan in May.

“In the first five months we surpassed 1,500 hours with over 400 flights. Since Fire Scout doesn’t require a runway, we are conveniently nearby and arrive on station quickly,” George Vardoulakis, the company’s vice president for tactical unmanned systems, said.

Fire Scout can carry a variety of electro-optical, infrared and communications sensors to provide situational awareness and targeting support to ground-and ship-based commanders.

The Navy has said it intends to weaponize the drone. NAVAIR gave Northrop Grumman a $17 million contract in September to begin the process, the company confirmed recently.

Northrop Grumman plans to equip the Fire Scouts with the laser-guided 70mm rocket that has been in production since 2010 and is known as the Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System. The capability will allow for engaging enemy targets without needing to call in other aircraft.

“By arming Fire Scout, the Navy will have a system that can locate and prosecute targets of interest,” Vardoulakis said.

Final delivery of an armed Fire Scout is expected in March 2013, making it the first sea based unmanned system to carry weapons, Northrop Grumman said.

Fire Scout is designed for fly at low ground speeds, giving it an ability to participate in littoral missions in support of drug interdiction, anti-piracy actions, search and rescue, reconnaissance and port security, Northrop Grumman said.