Researchers from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel and the university’s engineering department are looking for the public’s help to create a visual database of spotted lanternfly egg masses clinging to trees, patio furniture, vehicles, decks, and just about anything else.

The pictures will be used to “train” computers to use artificial intelligence so drones can identify masses at rail yards in an effort to control the spread of an invasive species that hitches rides on trains. The computers can comb through hundreds, or thousands, of pictures to learn to recognize variations of the masses. More pictures help make the algorithms more accurate, the researchers say.

The pictures will not be used to map where residents taking the pictures live or identify them. Rather, they will be used so drones can develop the “visual acuity” to, for example, scan rail yards to identify egg masses on railcars or equipment. Though just one of the many ways the species “hitchhikes” across county and state lines, it’s an important one that drones can see.

Now is the best time of year to launch this project, said Karen Verderame, an entomologist at the Academy of Natural Sciences. The spotted lanternflies start laying eggs in the fall that hatch in March and April. So the egg masses are highly visible in winter, especially with leaves off the trees.

While most adult spotted lanternflies freeze to death if unprotected, their eggs can survive the winter. That’s why it’s important to eliminate as many egg masses as possible before spring. A single egg mass can hold 30 to 50 eggs.

“To get the computers to really understand the egg masses and recognize them, we’re looking for help from citizens to send us pictures from egg masses before they are destroyed,” Verderame said.

The team especially needs pictures of eggs on vehicles and other metal objects because they would most resemble railcars or shipping containers.

Here are some instructions:

If you see eggs (either with or without the mudlike covering) in your neighborhood, take a picture of them. Use the “grid” setting on your phone and make sure the eggs are big enough to cover one of the squares. Then, take a picture a few inches away of an area without eggs and it will help teach the computer what to look for.

Finally, destroy the eggs by either scraping them off with a hard-edged object, such as a credit card. Scrape them into a plastic baggie and seal and trash it. Or crush the eggs with a fingernail or tool until you feel the “pop.”

To share your pictures, click on the Google photo album link (https://bit.ly/3kk8IqF) that says “egg masses” and click on the add photos icon in the upper right. Find the images on your phone and computer and upload them. Then, upload the picture of the same surface, but without egg masses to the link (https://bit.ly/34htEcj) that says “surface without masses.”

For more detailed instructions on how to identify masses and the best way to shoot your pictures, the scientists have prepared a primer at https://ansp.org/get-involved/science-at-the-academy/spotted-lanternfly/.

The spotted lanternfly, which is native to Asia, was first identified in the U.S. in Berks County in 2014. It feeds on the sap of many plants including grapevines, maples, black walnut, and fruit trees. It is present in 26 counties in Pennsylvania and is also in South Jersey.

The pest excretes a sugary substance that attracts bees, wasps, and other insects. The substance, known as honeydew, builds up and promotes the growth of fungi that can cover, and harm, the plant.