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Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com is developing a drone that can deliver packages weighing as much as one ton

JD.com headquarters logo sign outside building in South section of Beijing, May 19, 2016.
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JD.com headquarters logo sign outside building in South section of Beijing, May 19, 2016.

China's second largest e-commerce giant is developing a drone that can deliver packages weighing as much as one metric ton throughout rural areas of the country, according to JD.com's Chief Technology Officer (CTO).

"So today, as you have seen in China, e-commerce is huge but in remote villages most people are not benefitting from e-commerce… so to solve that problem we will develop our drone program," Chen Zhang told CNBC at the Consumer Electronics Show in Asia on Thursday.

Chen explained JD.com has seven different types of delivery drones in testing or operation across four provinces in China.

The company has drones that can fly up to 100km per hour, delivering packages weighing from 5kg to 30kg, and is testing drones which can carry as much as 1,000kg - or one metric ton. The maximum distance they can travel is approximately 100km before recharging.

While JD.com's drones are now able to carry heavier weights and travel further at a faster pace, Chen bemoaned the industry's persistent struggles with battery power. He explained, "The battery cost today is still very high… it is a major issue we need to address."

'We can fully operationalize our drone delivery program'

A JD.com drone taking off in Suqian, China
JD.com
A JD.com drone taking off in Suqian, China

"This is a radical industry right? Once the industry has solved the battery issue, we believe at that time our technology will be mature and we can fully operationalize our drone delivery program," Chen said.

The Beijing-based firm also said it would continue to work on developing fully automated warehouses in order to improve the company's efficiency. Chen suggested that if JD.com converted its warehouses in this way, it would be able to store up to 10 times as many goods in the same space.

JD.com has been developing its drone capabilities since October 2015 via its JDX innovation lab. It started trialing flights in June 2016, and is currently in operation or being tested in four provinces: Beijing, Sichuan, Shaanxi and Jiangsu, the company said.

JD.com isn't the only company looking at delivery by drone. Amazon has partnered with the U.K. government to test drone deliveries and recently designed a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) with robotic wingtips and legs that act as landing gear to help them touch down on uneven surfaces.

The U.S. based e-commerce giant also announced it would open a 60,000 square foot development center in the U.K. focused on artificial intelligence (A.I.) and drone delivery research.

— CNBC's Lucy Handley contributed to this report.

Correction: The story was revised to show the number of drones in development is seven; clarify the drone capable of carrying one metric ton is in development; change the weight to 5kg to 30kg and distance to 100km for drones in operation; and specify the locations of operation.