Chinese retail giant is dreaming big for drone delivery with plans to launch a fleet of heavy-lifting drones that could carry items weighing the equivalent of a small car across cities and even between provinces to its 235 million customers.

Beijing-based began trials of deliveries to customers using smaller drones in November 2016, shortly before Amazon Prime Air went live in the UK. JD's fleet will be used to carry goods to customers living in remote regions in the mountainous north-central Chinese province of Shaanxi, AP reports.

A number of companies are currently looking at how drones and wheeled robots can be used to deliver goods to customers, usually with the aim of targeting customers living in rural areas or increasing capacity in high-demand areas.

Yet most trials have been focused on moving small consignments over relatively short distances, meaning mail-by-drone isn't yet a viable alternative to the traditional four-wheeled variety.

Amazon Prime Air is a promising start to the mail-by-drone industry, but in its current form the service is restricted by the fairly meagre carrying capacity of the drones themselves, which are only capable of flying packages weighing a couple of kilos.

Unlike Amazon's drones, JD's heavy-lifting UAVs will be capable of carrying payloads of "one ton (907kg) or more", more than enough to transport bulk goods, heavy consumer electronics and kitchen appliances to customers. The retailer would also allow farmers living in remote regions of Shaanxi to use its drones to ship produce back to inner-city markets to sell, offering a quicker alternative to sending them by truck, during which time fresh goods could go off.

JD's drone delivery network will cover a 200-mile radius and specialist drone delivery sites will be required to accommodate the craft, with JD planning to build 150 bases over the next five years. The company will also establish an R&D centre with the Xi'an National Civil Aerospace Industrial Base where the drones will be manufactured.

Wang Zhenhui, chief executive of JD's logistics business group, said: "We envision a network that will be able to efficiently transport goods between cities, and even between provinces, in the future."