GROVER the Arctic rover resembles a tank with solar panels instead of gun turrets. This NASA-built machine may look like a kill-bot from after the robot apocalypse, but GROVER will actually keep scientists out of danger and save money as researchers study the changing environment of the far north.

The six-foot tall, 800-pound rover boasts a ground-penetrating radar array capable of measuring the hidden features of glaciers. GROVER can map Arctic environments for less money than satellites, airplanes, or snowmobiles, according to NASA. Plus, human operators control the machine from the safety and comfort of a control booth.

The rover began roaming the frozen landscape of Greenland on May 3 in a test run of GROVER’s ability to map the threatened glaciers of the Arctic isle. Greenland’s glaciers suffer in the increasing warmth in the far North. GROVER will help scientists understand phenomenon like the near-totally surface melt of Greenland’s ice cap in summer 2012.

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Teams of students designed and built GROVER during an engineering boot camp conducted by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

The aspiring engineers mounted two solar panels in a V formation atop the rover. That configuration allows GROVER to soak up the midnight sun of the Arctic summer and absorb extra rays bouncing off the snow and ice. What’s more, the solar panels mean GROVER won’t be contributing to the greenhouse effect that is causing all the problems for the world’s glaciers.

On GROVER’s current mission, the rover is being remotely controlled via Wi-Fi from Summit Camp, a research station near the highest elevations on Greenland. During these initial tests, GROVER will stay within three-miles (4.8-kilometers) of Summit Camp. In the future, GROVER could be controlled from hundreds of miles away via a satellite connection.

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“GROVER is just like a spacecraft but it has to operate on the ground,” Michael Comberiate, a retired NASA engineer and manager of the engineering camp that designed the rover, said in a press release. “It has to survive unattended for months in a hostile environment, with just a few commands to interrogate it and find out its status and give it some directions for how to accommodate situations it finds itself in.”

IMAGE: A prototype of GROVER, minus its solar panels, was tested in January 2012 at a ski resort in Idaho. The laptop in the picture is for testing purposes only and is not mounted on the final prototype. (Gabriel Trisca, Boise State University)