"This deployment will provide support for intelligence collection and will also facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region," Obama said in a letter sent Friday to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., president pro tem of the Senate.
Tuareg rebels seized control in the north of Mali, in the chaotic aftermath of a military coup. Islamic extremists gained control of key towns and pushed southward toward the capital.
France intervened last month, first with airstrikes and later with a deployment of about 4,000 ground troops.
Pentagon officials told NBC News drone aircraft were sent to Niger to support France's support counter-terrorism mission in Mali.
Defense Department officials said the first wave of unmanned aircraft included two Raptor surveillance drones.
The Pentagon said 250 to 300 military personnel, including remote pilots and security and maintenance crews, would eventually be deployed.
Besides helping the French in Mali, the drones could be used to provide intelligence on the Islamic militant threat in northern and eastern Africa, Pentagon officials said.