China's air force dispatched a drone to the site of an earthquake in the far western region of Xinjiang today to help in monitoring work, in what it said was the first time it had used an unmanned aircraft for such a task.

China is developing an ambitious drone program for use at home, and also for export, as part of modernization efforts for the world's largest armed forces.

The air force said in a statement on the Defense Ministry's website that the single drone was dispatched to the southern part of Xinjiang shortly after the quake struck and it "got a timely understanding of disaster relief needs".

It flew for 100 minutes over the quake zone, sending back accurate "scientific facts" about the situation on the ground.

The ministry gave no other details.

The quake hit a remote and mostly rural region, killing at least six people. Southern Xinjiang is the heartland of the Muslim Uighur people who call the region home.

The rapid deployment of the drone suggests the air force is already using them in Xinjiang, a restive part of the country, where hundreds have died in the past few years in violence blamed by Beijing on Islamist militants.

Xinjiang, strategically located on the borders of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, is one of China's most politically sensitive areas.

Exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists say the government's own repressive policies and religious and cultural restrictions have provoked unrest, an accusation the government denies.