Marine authorities in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning near the North Korea-China border are using an unmanned aerial vehicle to watch illegal activities in waters off North Korea.
Since not many countries use UAVs for coastal patrols, there is speculation that China wants to monitor North Korean defectors who escape by sea.
Hong Kong's South China Morning Post on Wednesday reported Liaoning marine authorities "began drone patrols for the first time over water and islands close to North Korea last week."
Liaoning is the first province to use a drone for coastal patrols. So far the patrols have only been test runs, but an annual budget of 10 million yuan is available from next year to make them a permanent fixture, the Liaoning provincial government said.
The provincial government set up a UAV deployment and control centre in the coastal city of Dalian.
Liaoning said use of the UAV aims to prevent illegal activity at sea and collect information necessary for the protection of the coast. It said it needs the drone because the coast is 2,200 km long and covers 150,000 sq. km of waters and 506 islands.
But the paper said, "Chinese officials are keen to upgrade marine patrols in case of a sudden flow of refugees from North Korea."
Another speculation is that drone patrols are aimed at cracking down on Chinese fishing boats illegally catching fish in South Korean waters. Many of the trawlers are based in coastal cities in Liaoning, including Dandong.
But China says the Liaoning scheme "is run by the civilian government without the use of military-grade equipment," according to the paper. Li Ziwei, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Remote Sensing Applications, was quoted as saying, "The drones used by the People's Liberation Army were among the best in the world, able to climb tens of thousands of meters and stay in the air for almost 24 hours without refueling... the model being used by the Liaoning authorities -- with a camera only able to pick out objects no smaller than 50 cm -- almost certainly came from the civilian sector."
"Military UAVs wouldn't be used for daily tasks such as border patrols -- they're too expensive," she added.
The U.S. uses unmanned helicopters for coastal patrols.