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Air Force lab takes aim at Han Solo’s record

twentieth century fox

Any self-respecting “Star Wars” fan knows that legendary smuggler Han Solo made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs (or about 39 light years, for those keeping score).

Now the US Air Force has set up a Kessel Run of its own in Boston. That’s the name of a new laboratory designed to set new speed records in the development of mission-critical military software.

“It was this running joke that we were going to smuggle this new software development capability into the Air Force in 12 parsecs or less,” said Air Force Captain Bryon Kroger, chief operating officer of the Kessel Run Experimentation Lab at the WeWork shared office facility on Portland Street. “It’s the shortest way to get from Point A to Point B.”

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The new lab grew out of an effort to create software for managing the deployment of tanker aircraft that must refuel other Air Force planes in midflight. Making sure that the correct number of tankers are in the correct airspace is a massive logistical challenge. Yet until recently, Air Force personnel tracked tanker deployments by hand, using whiteboards.

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Then an Air Force team joined forces with Pivotal Inc., a company that designs systems for simplifying and speeding up the development of corporate software. Typically, it can take five years for a branch of the US military to develop and deploy new software. The Air Force-Pivotal team built the refueling app in four months.

The Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, a Pentagon department that seeks to apply private-sector know-how to military problems, was so impressed that it worked with Pivotal and the Air Force to create Kessel Run.

Chief product officer Adam Furtado, a civilian, said the military has traditionally produced software using the same painstaking and costly method used in buying ships, planes, and tanks. At Kessel Run, they’re embracing the fast-paced software development practices long used by civilian enterprises.

“We shot for the moon and decided to take a page out of the Silicon Valley playbook,” Furtado said.

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The plan is to institutionalize this faster way of writing software throughout the entire US military.

”We’re already starting to see the various services take note of what we’ve been able to accomplish so far,” Furtado said. “It’s very much possible that our model gets adopted as the model going forward.”

Kessel Run currently occupies a space suitable for about 90 engineers. But by next year it will move into a larger WeWork space that will be able to accommodate about 300.

Chances are, many of them will be major “Star Wars” fans, but not Furtado. He started watching the original movie, but gave up at the famous Cantina scene.

”There were a bunch of aliens drinking beer,” Furtado said, “and I said, ‘Ah, I’ve had enough of this.’ ”

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.