NASA seeks airborne mesh radio system concept to allow automatic joining of radio networks in remote areas

Sept. 21, 2023
Agency says it wants aircraft, or any other asset equipped with the proper mesh radio, to automatically join the network as they approach the area of operations during wildfire management.

WASHINGTON - The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced it is seeking concepts from industry for airborne assets to automatically join a mesh radio system (MRS) without relying on existing functional infrastructure at a wildland fire and exchange information critical to maintaining situation awareness and air traffic management by the onsite incident command (IC).

NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland envisions a MRS Aircraft, or any other asset equipped with the proper mesh radio, can automatically join the network as they approach the area of operations. Once the aircraft becomes a node of the network, it can wirelessly exchange data with other nodes. When the aircraft exits the area of operations the mesh network performs self-healing if necessary as the aircraft stops exchanging data and leaves the network.

Operation of the mesh radio will consist of a simple check list and the operator powering on the radio. The types of data that are exchanged will depend on the devices and applications connected to the mesh radio. The mesh radio acts simply as a conduit. After the radio is powered on, it then automatically joins the network and begins exchanging data with other nodes that are in range.

The mesh system is seeking approval of the allocated spectrum from 15.4-15.75 GHz in the Ku frequency band. Using Ku band radios each air asset and ground support station can join the mesh network and be connected to all nodes in the mesh. Nodes can connect other information systems to the mesh radios to transmit outside data to all nodes within the mesh. For example, air assets can connect the mesh network to an Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B) system, which could allow ground units without ADS-B access to aircraft positions and headings. This could also be used by the Air Tactical Group Supervisor (ATGS) or ground support station to send updated maps and wind charts to aircraft. Data could then be sent to a common operational picture (COP) application to provide up-to-date information on the mission. To ensure network stability the mesh can reroute connections when a node leaves the range of the mesh network. The mesh network could also be used to monitor or direct aerial ignition drones or aircraft during nighttime operations.

Currently the ATGS and other incident commanders use voice communications over radios and manually entered data to maintain situation awareness of airborne assets and coordinate the utilization of assets. There is a desire for enhanced situational awareness along with the ability to pass additional information at a very low or no operating cost to the owners of the system. The desired mesh radio system uses mesh-network technology to establish a topology of peer nodes in the incident space that communicate with each other and share information in support of the management of aircraft or other assets.

NASA's mesh network concept starts with installing radios capable of 15.4 - 15.75 GHz frequencies onto air assets and ground units that have sufficient power for the radios. These radios will be configured before wildfire operations to operate in a mesh routing mode, which will allow for the creation of a mesh network once operations begin. At the minimum level of utilization, the mesh network will give ground and air units another method of communication as well as access to the internet. The mesh network will use a rebroadcasting protocol to ensure that each node receives data from each other node in the network, but specific nodes can be targeted for data using node addressing. Nodes will not require direct line-of-sight to share information with another node as nodes blocked by obstructions or transmission distance can exchange information through the rebroadcasting of nearby nodes. The self-healing properties of the mesh network allows for nodes to enter and exit the network without disputing the transfer of data. Each node can also connect other information systems to the mesh network radio to broadcast that system’s data throughout the network. With a proper two-way connection between the mesh radio and another system, the mesh network could enhance a locally sourced data system with regional information from other nodes or the internet. The mesh network will allow for passive data ingestion from operators while giving command units the ability to send out updates to maps and mission objectives.

For sensitive or unencrypted data, the mesh system will use an authentication protocol to increase security within the mesh network. ADS-B is an open standard that broadcasts unencrypted messages making it generally susceptible to eavesdropping, message deletion, message injection and message modification. However, in an emergency firefighting operation the ATGS needs great confidence in the validity of the data from ADS-B messages. To combat the possibility of a malicious node and increase the confidence in ADS-B messages the system will incorporate secure broadcast authentication using a public key infrastructure (PKI). Authentication will not prevent radio interference from malicious transmitters but can ensure that only authorized nodes can send data packets into the network.

NASA's Glenn Research Center has a response date of 19 October 2023 at 4 p.m. EDT. More information, including documentation, is available at The primary contact person is Kevin Carroll, who can be reached at [email protected]

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Military Aerospace, create an account today!