Localization or positioning of wireless sensor nodes is an essential task for a wide range of applications in wireless sensor networks-based fifth generation (5G) networks. Node localization using mobile aerial beacon nodes (MABNs) provides high localization accuracy and less deployment cost compared to the localization using fixed ground beacon nodes because MABN deployed in unmanned aerial vehicles sends signals to unknown nodes (UNs) through reliable air to ground (AG) channel link. The classical received signal strength indicator (RSSI)-based multilateration and optimization-based least square localization (OLSL) schemes result high localization error because of the nonlinear distortions induced in the wireless channel. So, the highly nonlinear artificial neural network (ANN) models such as multilayer perceptron (MLP) and radial basis function (RBF) are used effectively for nonlinear node localization problems. ANN-based localization techniques are also capable of localizing mobile UNs. Further, the RBF with Gaussian activation has a little edge over the MLP with sigmoid activation because the wireless channel usually modelled with a Gaussian random variable. The simulation results included in this article also justify the efficacy of the proposed RBF localization with performance gain of about (7–70) % over MLP, OLSL and RSSI localization techniques. © 2021, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer-Verlag London Ltd., part of Springer Nature.