This paper contributes with the first validation of swarm cognition as a useful framework for the design of autonomous robots controllers. The proposed model is built upon the authors’ previous work validated on a simulated robot performing local navigation on a 2-D deterministic world. Based on the ant foraging metaphor and motivated by the multiple covert attention hypothesis, the model consists of a set of simple virtual agents inhabiting the robot’s visual input, searching in a collectively coordinated way for obstacles. Parsimonious and accurate visual attention, operating on a by-need basis, is attained by making the activity of these agents modulated by the robot’s action selection process. A by-product of the system is the maintenance of active, parallel and sparse spatial working memories. In short, the model exhibits the self-organisation of a relevant set of features composing a cognitive system. To show its robustness, the model is extended in this paper to handle the challenges of physical off-road robots equipped with noisy stereoscopic vision sensors. Furthermore, an extensive aggregate of biological arguments sustaining the model is provided. Experimental results show the ability of the model to robustly control the robot on a local navigation task, with less than 1% of the robot’s visual input being analysed. Hence, with this system the computational cost of perception is considerably reduced, thus fostering robot miniaturisation and energetic efficiency. This confirms the advantages of using a swarm-based system, operating in an intricate way with action selection, to judiciously control visual attention and maintain sparse spatial memories, constituting a basic form of swarm cognition.