Alibaba delivery drone
Alibaba delivery drones can fly small packages to customers in under an hourTaobao

Alibaba, the Chinese online marketplace, is conducting a three-day test to deliver packages using airborne drones within an hour.

Replicating plans laid out by Amazon last year, the company will deliver packages weighing up to 340 grams within an hour to customers living close to the company's distribution sites in Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai.

Alibaba's Taobao online shop is working with delivery firm Shanghai YTO Express to carry out the tests, which use branded, radio-controlled quadcopters to deliver packages to a trial group of 450 customers.

Although any small package weighing less than 340 grams could theoretically be delivered, for now the test will only be used for orders of a specific brand of ginger tea.

"This is a one-off campaign where ginger tea packets ordered on Taobao can be delivered to designated cities or regions within an hour," parent company Alibaba told Forbes. "We're unsure about future possibilities yet, but this is our first drone delivery service campaign."

Alibaba isn't alone in using delivery drones, as courier company SF express, also in China, has been testing quadcopters to work alongside its fleet of scooters, vans and airplanes since 2013.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also has dreams of delivering goods by unmanned drone. Last summer, the company sought permission from the US Federal Aviation Administration to test delivery drones which can fly up to 50 miles per hour, for up to 30 minutes, and carry packages weighing up to 2.3kg.

In November 2014 the company advertised vacancies in Cambridge, UK, for aviation-related jobs for a new division called Amazon Prime Air. One job advert read: "Flight test experience, manned or unmanned, is preferred." Amazon has multiple Prime Air development centres, including R&D labs in Cambridge and Seattle.

But any company looking to deliver via drone - at least in the UK - will have to get permission from the Civil Aviation Authority, which currently does not allow drones to fly in built-up areas, near airports, sensitive locations like central London, and requires the drones to be kept within sight of the pilot.