In current usage, the term "remote sensing" generally refers to the use of satellite- or aircraft-based sensor technologies to detect and classify objects on Earth, including on the surface and in the atmosphere and oceans, based on propagated signals (e.g. electromagnetic radiation). It may be split into "active" remote sensing (i.e., when a signal is emitted by a satellite or aircraft and its reflection by the object is detected by the sensor) and "passive" remote sensing (i.e., when the reflection of sunlight is detected by the sensor).
Passive sensors gather radiation that is emitted or reflected by the object or surrounding areas. Reflected sunlight is the most common source of radiation measured by passive sensors. Examples of passive remote sensors include film photography, infrared, charge-coupled devices, and radiometers. Active collection, on the other hand, emits energy in order to scan objects and areas whereupon a sensor then detects and measures the radiation that is reflected or backscattered from the target. RADAR and LiDAR are examples of active remote sensing where the time delay between emission and return is measured, establishing the location, speed and direction of an object.
Remote sensing makes it possible to collect data of dangerous or inaccessible areas. Remote sensing applications include monitoring deforestation in areas such as the Amazon Basin, glacial features in Arctic and Antarctic regions, and depth sounding of coastal and ocean depths. Military collection during the Cold War made use of stand-off collection of data about dangerous border areas. Remote sensing also replaces costly and slow data collection on the ground, ensuring in the process that areas or objects are not disturbed.
Orbital platforms collect and transmit data from different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, which in conjunction with larger scale aerial or ground-based sensing and analysis, provides researchers with enough information to monitor trends such as El Niño and other natural long and short term phenomena. Other uses include different areas of the earth sciences such as natural resource management, agricultural fields such as land usage and conservation, and national security and overhead, ground-based and stand-off collection on border areas.
The basis for multispectral collection and analysis is that of examined areas or objects that reflect or emit radiation that stand out from surrounding areas. For a summary of major remote sensing satellite systems see the overview table.