What is remote sensing and what is it used for?

Remote sensing is the process of detecting and monitoring the physical characteristics of an area by measuring its reflected and emitted radiation at a distance (typically from satellite or aircraft). Special cameras collect remotely sensed images, which help researchers "sense" things about the Earth. Some examples are:

  • Cameras on satellites and airplanes take images of large areas on the Earth's surface, allowing us to see much more than we can see when standing on the ground.
  • Sonar systems on ships can be used to create images of the ocean floor without needing to travel to the bottom of the ocean.
  • Cameras on satellites can be used to make images of temperature changes in the oceans.

Some specific uses of remotely sensed images of the Earth include:

  • Large forest fires can be mapped from space, allowing rangers to see a much larger area than from the ground.
  • Tracking clouds to help predict the weather or watching erupting volcanoes, and help watching for dust storms.
  • Tracking the growth of a city and changes in farmland or forests over several years or decades.
  • Discovery and mapping of the rugged topography of the ocean floor (e.g., huge mountain ranges, deep canyons, and the “magnetic striping” on the ocean floor).

Related Content

Filter Total Items: 6

What are the band designations for the Landsat satellites?

The sensors aboard each of the Landsat satellites were designed to acquire data in different ranges of frequencies along the electromagnetic spectrum ( View Bandpass Wavelengths for all Landsat Sensors ). The Multispectral Scanner (MSS) carried on Landsat 1,2,3,4 and 5 collected data in four ranges (bands); the Thematic Mapper (TM) sensor on...

What are the acquisition schedules for the Landsat satellites?

The Landsat 7 and Landsat 8 satellites orbit the Earth at an altitude of 705 kilometers (438 miles) in a 185-kilometer (115-mile) swath, moving from north to south over the sunlit side of the Earth in a sun synchronous orbit, following the World Reference System (WRS-2) . Each satellite makes a complete orbit every 99 minutes, completes about 14...

What sensors does the Landsat 9 satellite carry?

Landsat 9 carries the same instruments that are on the Landsat 8 satellite but with some improvements: Operational Land Imager-2 (OLI-2) for reflective band data. Thermal Infrared Sensor-2 (TIRS-2) for the thermal infrared bands. OLI-2 has a slightly improved signal-to-noise ratio over Landsat 8's OLI. Landsat 9’s TIRS-2 is a Class-B instrument...

Are the scanned aerial photographic images georectified?

Scans of traditional aerial photography film products (air photos) are not georectified . The USGS does, however, offer several orthoimagery (georectified aerial photograph) products: Digital Orthophoto Quadrangle (DOQ) High Resolution Orthoimagery (HRO) National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP, NAIP Plus) NAIP orthoimagery has been collected...

How do I download orthoimagery products and what are the available formats?

Download orthoimagery (georectified aerial photographs) using EarthExplorer , which has the full catalog of USGS orthoimagery and aerial photography, or The National Map downloader, which has NAIP orthoimagery only. EarthExplorer : Products Overview Format varies by type of orthoimagery: Native format, Georeferenced Tagged Image File Format (...

What do the different colors in a color-infrared aerial photograph represent?

Color-infrared (CIR) aerial photography--often called "false color" photography because it renders the scene in colors not normally seen by the human eye--is widely used for interpretation of natural resources. Atmospheric haze does not interfere with the acquisition of the image. Live vegetation is almost always associated with red tones. Very...
Filter Total Items: 3
Date published: August 27, 2018

Hazards Data Distribution System Releases Thousands of Aerial Images of Kilauea Impact

The eruptive behavior of the Kilauea volcano that began in May 2018 on Hawaii’s Big Island has created an unparalleled opportunity for understanding volcanic systems.

Date published: April 17, 2018

Free, Open Landsat Data Unleashed the Power of Remote Sensing a Decade Ago

In the old days, before 2008, a view of planet Earth from space often came at a cost.

Date published: November 9, 2015

Newly Released Photo Catalog Puts US Landscapes On Exhibit

The U.S. Geological Survey announced today that it has made part of a huge national repository of geographically referenced USGS field photographs publicly available. USGS geographers developed a simple, easy-to-use mapping portal called the Land Cover Trends Field Photo Map.

Attribution: Land Resources
Filter Total Items: 4
April 16, 2018

10th Anniversary of Landsat's Free & Open Data Policy

Leaders in the field of remote sensing discuss working with Landsat data since it began in 1972. With the change to a free and open policy 10 years ago, new and exciting possibilities have opened up.

Image shows aerial imagery of flooding in Louisiana, courtesy of the National Geodetic Survey
August 18, 2016

NGS Aerial Imagery of Louisiana Flooding

Aerial imagery of flooding in Louisiana. Image created by Jason Burton, USGS, using aerial imagery taken by NOAA aviators on behalf of the National Geodetic Survey.

 Land Remote Sensing Image of Mount St. Helens on May 22, 1983
May 20, 2015

Land Remote Sensing Image of Mount St. Helens on May 22, 1983

Land Remote Sensing Image of Mount St. Helens on May 22, 1983. The volcanic blast on May 18, 1980, devastated more than 150 square miles of forest within a few minutes. In this Landsat false-color images, forest appears as bright red interspersed with patches of logging. Snow appears white, and ash is gray.


Before the eruption, Mount St. Helens towered

Before and after images of coastal change in Cape Lookout National Seashore caused by Hurricane Dorian.

Before and after images of coastal change caused by Dorian in NC

The Longpoint Cabin Camp in Cape Lookout National Seashore was heavily impacted by Hurricane Dorian’s waves and surge. All of the cabins were damaged and one pavilion is gone altogether. The area is now inaccessible  due to the cut from the harbor to the cabins. These cuts were likely formed when surge flowed over the island from the sound side. The dunes in front of the